Closing imaginary loopholes in Illinois’ public-records law

Closing imaginary loopholes in Illinois’ public-records law

While the Freedom of Information Act is abundantly clear, secrecy-obsessed bureaucrats often claim exemption.

When it comes to spending tax dollars, state law is clear: Taxpayers have a right to be in the loop. Illinois’ public-records law guarantees that.

Still, crafty bureaucrats find ways to bypass the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, even to the point where they come up with imaginary loopholes.

Exhibit A: the pattern in which officials keep large severance agreements secret, citing the personnel exception to FOIA.

In January, the College of DuPage tried to keep its $763,000 severance agreement with President Robert Breuder under wraps. The Chicago Tribune got a copy anyway, spoiling the college’s plan.

In 2013, Metra officials attempted to keep secret the details of an $871,000 deal with the agency’s former executive director. This also failed.

That was public money, and Metra wouldn’t even give the public a clue about why they ousted the official. That information only came to light because of vigilant investigative reporting.

FOIA is already clear on this issue, yet public bodies continue to evade both the letter and spirit of the law. A one-sentence section of FOIA should put to rest any debate: “All records relating to the obligation, receipt, and use of public funds of the State, units of local government, and school districts are public records subject to inspection and copying by the public.”

That means contracts dealing with spending of public money are open to public scrutiny, including those expensive golden parachutes that make headlines.

Another FOIA provision specifies that settlements with government bodies are public, further clarifying the issue. Severance agreements, after all, are settlements.

But apparently this logic fails to sway officialdom. So state Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, proposed an amendment to FOIA that eliminates the possibility of confusion. House Bill 303 clarifies that severance agreements are open to the public. On April 15, the Illinois House of Representatives passed her proposal 114-2.

In an editorial, the Chicago Tribune urged legislators to go further. It said the state should bar confidentiality provisions in settlements with public bodies. Such clauses are prevalent, as a Better Government Association database shows.

Typically, these provisions bar the parties from revealing terms to the media or others, “except to the extent disclosure is required to attorneys, tax advisers, or as otherwise required by law.”

These provisions are probably intended to confuse people, a strategy that works sometimes.

In 2011, Morrison, Illinois, a small town near the Quad Cities, refused to disclose an agreement with General Electric Co. to settle claims that the company’s old plant polluted surrounding groundwater. Town leaders cited a nondisclosure clause.

After the local newspaper complained to the attorney general, the town released the settlement. It contained a confidentiality provision, but made exceptions for open-government laws.

When necessary, lawmakers should clarify FOIA to shut down secrecy-obsessed bureaucrats. Close unintended loopholes, even those imagined.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!