Sunshine Week sheds light on public information

In the midst of a week dedicated to governmental transparency, advocates of open government worry that some legislators are making laws that would restrict access to public information.

Through Saturday, the American Society of News Editors is leading Sunshine Week, a national event to raise awareness about open government. However, Don Craven, general counsel to the Illinois Press Association who helped rewrite the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, said its purpose to ensure more access to public documents is already being challenged by lawmakers. A revised version of Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, went into effect on Jan. 1 with overwhelming support from the General Assembly.

“All of those same people who unanimously passed that bill last year are nibbling at it this year,” Craven said.

Last May, the state’s new FOIA passed through the Illinois House by a unanimous vote and was approved by the Senate with only one member voting against the bill.

Sen. David Koehler, D-46, was among the 59 senators who voted in favor of the revised Illinois FOIA. He is now the alternate chief co-sponsor of House Bill 5154, which would exempt performance evaluations of public employees from being available under the act.

“My primary concern is that if we allow all personnel evaluations to be public, what happens is an unintended consequence that we cease to have any meaningful performance evaluations,” he said.

Koehler said the public has a right to know information about employees who are paid by tax dollars but added it is difficult to draw a line between what is public and private information.

He said he would be discussing the bill further with the its chief sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-4, who could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Craven said he agrees there is information that should remain private, however, efforts to define what constitutes private information was discussed in the revised FOIA.

“One of the things we thought we fixed last year was this creation of categories and documents that are private… but I think it is very possible to construct an evaluation form so that the information that we think should be released publicly can be released publicly,” Craven said. “There’s one field in the form for private information.”

Any exemptions currently being discussed would likely not decrease the amount documents available from the University, however.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the only employee records released through the FOIA are outcomes of disciplinary proceedings, dates of employment and titles.

Craven said the pending legislation in Springfield during Sunshine Week reflects the state’s ongoing struggle between open government and personal privacy.

“The state of transparency in Illinois is in constant flux,” he added.