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Dominos falling across Illinois government

Students of the Cold War remember the “domino theory,” the prevailing argument for American military involvement in Vietnam.

Practitioners of realpolitik said we had to intervene to halt the spread of communism, because if one country went “red” nearby nations would fall too, like dominos.

It didn’t happen, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I’ve been thinking about falling dominos in a different context lately — government here in Illinois — where the danger isn’t Stalinism or Maoism but an erosion of transparency and accountability in public agencies funded with our tax dollars.

Many of them are trying hard to chip away at the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees public access to most government records.

Here’s the danger: If FOIA’s weakened in one place, others may follow — falling like dominos — and that’s bad news for anyone who cares about holding public officials accountable.

The BGA uses FOIA all the time to review documents because information is power — look over the shoulders of government officials and they’re less likely to misbehave.

So we fight attempts to emasculate FOIA, and sometimes that means going to court.

In recent weeks the BGA’s backed two lawsuits that were filed to protect transparency.

In one, Nelson v. Kendall County, an appellate court ruled that prosecutors aren’t subject to FOIA.

It means the public won’t be able to easily obtain records from state’s attorneys to assess the quality of their work, and that’s alarming.

We have to hold prosecutors more, not less accountable, in light of Illinois’ shameful history of wrongful convictions.

So we joined forces with two Illinois media groups in filing a “friend of the court” brief with the Illinois Supreme Court, which is reviewing the appellate ruling.

The BGA also filed a similar amicus brief in a second case, Garlick v. Madigan, a lawsuit challenging a questionable decision by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office.

Faced with a FOIA request from a citizen, the AG refused to provide public records in a commonly used electronic spreadsheet format, opting instead to release pre-existing PDF reports.

The appellate court said a public agency doesn’t have to honor requests for electronic records in formats different from the way the documents already exist, even if they’re easily converted.

We think that violates the spirit and the letter of FOIA law by making it harder to review some electronic records.

So stay tuned for the verdict.

Meanwhile, the BGA filed its own lawsuit a couple of months ago against Karen Yarbrough, Cook County’s recorder of deeds, for refusing to honor an email request for documents.

She was following a FOIA protocol from the pre-digital era, and initially refused to change it to accommodate requests from the people who pay her salary.

Ridiculous or what?

Our lawsuit apparently jarred her into digital reality, and she settled the case by agreeing to change the policy to allow email requests.

Was that so hard?

Not for her, but these FOIA fights take a lot of legal time and effort, and for that we thank our stellar pro bono attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

We’re simply trying to keep the dominos upright because, unlike the “Cold War” iteration, this “domino theory” is real.

And sadly, the folks trying to knock the dominos down are supposed to be representing the interests of the public.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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