The public’s right to know often gets taken for granted: Of course we can find out what teachers and county workers and other public figures make. Naturally we can know what goes on at city councils, school boards and various public bodies.
But the right to know is a hard-fought right that’s constantly under attack. And so this week media companies throughout the nation celebrate Sunshine Week to remind people of that right to know about public business, and the need to be on guard for politicians who would undermine that right.
For instance, last week some Illinois lawmakers tried to scale back the requirement for public bodies to publish public notices. Under the bill, they would no longer have to put notices in newspapers, but rather could post them on their own websites.
Fortunately this bill didn’t make it out of committee, in part because state Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis, voted against it. Utah passed a similar law in 2009, then repealed it two years later because, surprise, surprise, not all public bodies were posting the required information.
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It would be the same in Illinois. A lot of public bodies now don’t post three simple categories of information as required by law: meeting notices, agendas and meeting minutes. The Citizen Advocacy Center and the Illinois Press Association checked 756 public bodies last year and found that only about half even had websites. Of the 385 that did, just 73 percent posted meeting notices, 57 percent posted meeting agendas and 48 posted meeting minutes.
This is another argument for consolidation of government. With almost 7,000 units of local government, it’s difficult for the many smaller ones to maintain websites and keep them up to date. But whether there are few or many public bodies, the goal for Illinois needs to be open and transparent government. We hope that public attention to Sunshine Week helps ensure that.