Guest Column: The Illinois Freedom of (Some) Information Act?

November 24, 2010

By Emily Miller
Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator, Better Government Association

How quickly we forget.

In the wake of scandal and corruption at the highest levels of government, Illinois lawmakers passed a law in 2009 bolstering the Freedom of Information Act—a move designed to give everyday people access to important government information.

This year, however, lawmakers are having second thoughts and are trying to whittle away at this newly-arrived accountability era by making it more difficult for the public to root out mismanagement, waste and corruption.

There’s no more glaring example of legislative backsliding than House Bill 5154, a measure passed by both the House and Senate last spring that flies in the face of reformers’ efforts to make Illinois government more transparent and accountable to taxpayers.

If the measure passes, the public will no longer have access to government employee performance reviews. This proposed law prevents government watchdog groups like the Better Government Association and the ACLU, along with investigative news teams, from accessing vital records that indicate whether Illinois is demanding the highest level of performance from its public servants.

Access to information about how our government spends our money is vital to uncovering waste and misconduct. Arguments to conceal performance evaluations hinge on fears that making those evaluations public will discourage managers from giving honest evaluations, or that the evaluation process will be used as a method of public humiliation to retaliate against unwanted employees. But these reasons only highlight the dysfunction of our personnel system, and do not speak to the legitimacy of the peoples’ right to access information about their government.

If the government gets to pick and choose, taxpayers will never know what’s really going on behind the curtain. Exempting performance evaluations from the sunlight of transparency does not serve the public good.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) had the chance to veto the bill entirely, putting the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are spent first, but he did not. Instead, he used a legislative maneuver that sends the bill, with an amendment, back to the General Assembly to be heard next week.

No amendment could make this bill work for the public good.

We urge lawmakers to vote no on H.B. 5154 as it makes its way back through the General Assembly during the upcoming veto session.

Emily Miller is the policy and government affairs coordinator for the Better Government Association.

From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue

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