Welcome to Sunshine Week, which we celebrate through March 19 as a reminder that when you open up government and its filing cabinets to a little sunshine, it has a sanitizing effect that creates good government.
Journalists rely heavily on two tools to ensure government remains open, and they are the same tools that any member of the public can employ to keep an eye on their public leaders and tax dollars. The Open Meetings Act gives access to government proceedings and curbs the antics employed to hide the public’s business from the public. The Freedom of Information Act opens up public records.
Government agencies try to hide records by charging high fees, delaying requests or claiming the requests are too burdensome to fulfill. They claim records must be kept secret because they contain private or sensitive information, when often they are the only ones sensitive to disclosure.
The News-Democrat recently fought the city of Collinsville for acccess to public records regarding Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich’s personal purchases using city accounts when she worked for the city. That FOIA fight went to court, took nearly nine months but eventually the public was able to see exactly what purchases were made by Brombolich and other city department heads. Voters can use that information.
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More than 100 FOIA requests were made when News-Democrat journalists were counting the sexual felony cases in Southern Illinois, work that showed for the victims brave enough to come forward, law enforcement will fail to prosecute 7 of every 10 cases. That work led to a statewide task force to examine the problem and to a major federal grant in St. Clair County to change the outcomes.
There is a chance this week that the U.S. Senate, with your encouragement, could pass S. 337, the FOIA Improvement Act, during Sunshine Week. The bill would strengthen the FOIA law so federal agencies would need to start with the presumption that records were open, would need to make it easier for the public to obtain records and would ensure independence to the ombudsman responsible for FOIA disputes, the Office of Government Information Services.