Open records act should be as open as it claims to be

Since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached, our advocacy for transparency and accountability in government has been a constant. But the one question we have not clearly answered was exactly how government officials could be more transparent and accountable.

Some Illinois leaders have stepped up and suggested revisions to the state’s “toothless tiger,” also known as the Freedom of Information Act.

Illinois’ 1984 open records law declares “that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them.” The problem is the act is difficult to enforce because there are no penalties for ignorance and noncompliance built in.

Some agencies reject FOIA requests or stall as long as they possibly can to hold off handing over records for one reason or another. It can take months, even years, for some records to be handed over to journalists and citizens.

And admittedly, we have a selfish interest in strengthening this act as journalists in training, but the true importance lies in allowing every Illinois resident access to school board minutes or city work requests.

A lawsuit should not be the only recourse for a petitioner when a government agency or body rejects a request citing one of Illinois’ 55 exceptions. As Attorney General Lisa Madigan testified to a House committee in February, the exceptions have become reflexive excuses for government bodies and serve as barriers to openness and honesty in government.

In our own experience as student journalists, filing a records request is a tedious and frustrating process. Many public officials, knowing the weaknesses of the law, delay and deny requests to the exasperation of students on deadlines.

Illinois taxpayers are the true owners of government records and the information contained therein. We trust our public officials to be caretakers of that information, not to become guard dogs.

A revision of this law could be the answer we have been waiting for: transparency and accountability in one.

While we acknowledge that Madigan, as a potential candidate for governor, has something to gain from leading this reform movement, the benefit for Illinois citizens is greater than the individual rewards for the attorney general. But in this process, we must hold our lawmakers accountable by demanding genuine tools rather than ineffective additions to our toothless tiger.

Imposing fines, attorney’s fees, and in some cases criminal sanctions on violators will strengthen and validate the act, giving power back to Illinois citizens, where it belongs.

If the law is revised, it will enable the people of Illinois to monitor the government. This could be one large step to end corruption in our state and continue to heal the wounds inflicted by the Blagojevich administration.