Garth Brooks and your right to know

It was fun to watch from afar in February as student journalists at the University of Oklahoma used their state’s open records law to score a rock band’s cherished guacamole recipe.

Reporters for The Oklahoma Daily wanted to know how much the Campus Activities Council paid for a performance by singer Jack White and his band on Feb. 2. When the council ignored their questions, they obtained a copy of White’s contract under Oklahoma’s Freedom of Information Act.

Included in the contract was a hilariously explicit recipe (chicagotribune.com/jackwhite) for the avocado dip to be provided in the band’s dressing room, plus many other fun details (“We don’t want to see bananas anywhere in the building”), which The Daily promptly published. White was not amused.

The newspaper reported that OU spent $133,747 on the concert – about $15,000 of it from student activity fees – and brought in $132,875.

About the same time, the Tribune was having a similar dust-up with Rosemont, which refused to release financial documents about country superstar Garth Brooks’ concert stand at the publicly owned Allstate Arena.

The village finally handed over the records after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office said withholding them was a violation of the state’s FOIA. The documents showed Rosemont paid the singer more than $1 million to launch his comeback tour with 11 concerts at the arena.

OU officials say they deliberately kept student ticket prices low and were happy to almost break even. Rosemont says it made $2 million. That’s all beside the point.

Those events took place in public venues supported by public dollars. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is managed and spent. That’s what those open records laws are all about.

In 2012, Tribune reporters took a good look at the finances of another publicly owned entertainment venue: Bridgeview’s Toyota Park. The suburb borrowed heavily to build the stadium, which opened in 2006. Residents’ property bills have nearly tripled since then because the soccer games, concerts and other events held at the stadium don’t bring in enough money to pay its debt.

Construction companies, vendors and consultants – many of them with connections to local politicians – have made a lot of money from the stadium, though. Village leaders and their cronies hold fundraisers and other parties there. In 2013, the Tribune examined the records of several publicly owned entertainment venues in Chicago’s suburbs. It found that local officials and their friends often got free tickets or had access to the best seats, or both – while the public paid face value or scalper markups.

See why it’s important for records to be public?

Now Rosemont wants state lawmakers to weaken the Freedom of Information Act so it can keep those entertainment contracts secret.

The bill, sponsord by state Rep. Bob Rita, would exempt governments from disclosing incentives provided or rents paid “by persons, organizations or businesses that agree to make use of a public facility for a convention, trade show, meeting, athletic contest, concert, musical, dramatic or other artistic, cultural or social event.”

So basically, deals involving any event held by anybody at any public site would be off the books. What could possibly go wrong?

Lawmakers, don’t even think about chipping away at the FOIA. Those records provide an indispensable window into public officials’ stewardship of taxpayer dollars. If we’re lucky, they might some day uncover a great guacamole recipe.

- Chicago Tribune