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Sunshine Week: Illinois' Information Laws at Work

Illinois' Public Access Bureau worked through about 4,770 requests over the state's Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act laws. (iStockphoto)
Illinois' Public Access Bureau worked through about 4,770 requests over the state's Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act laws. (iStockphoto)
March 18, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - It's Sunshine Week, when civic groups focus on the need for open government and celebrate the Freedom of Information laws, including those in Illinois.

According to a report released this week by state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, her office in 2015 helped resolve a majority of more than 4,000 disputes over the state's Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts. One of the biggest wins, said Sarah Brune, executive director of the government watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, came when Madigan's office found that the Chicago Police Department improperly withheld information about the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

"Not only was a FOIA request denied in that case, they actually had to go to court to get the video in that shooting released," she said. "FOIA is important because it provides a point of access, but at the same time it can be problematic because there's always someone on the other end who can approve or deny your request."

The national FOIA law was passed 50 years ago, giving citizens the right to access government information that might not otherwise have been made public.

In addition to helping journalists and residents keep tabs on police, Brune said, open access to government data also can help voters make more informed decisions. Her group recently unveiled the Illinois Sunshine database, which tracks how much money is flowing in and out of state politicians' campaigns.

"Understanding who is donating to your elected official is a really important piece of information for any resident to know," she said. "It just helps you put into context who may be influencing them, who has access to them."

The database tracks information coming out of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

While Illinois' FOIA law has been effective, Brune argued there's more work to be done. She pointed to a stipulation in the law that allows state legislators to be exempt from FOIA requests.

"Any kind of policy that excludes a certain class from FOIA requirements breeds a certain sense with the public that there must be something that they don't want the public to know," she said.

Brune said removing that exemption could help shed more light on state government operations.

The attorney general's public-access report is online at foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.

Brandon Campbell, Public News Service - IL