Monday, August 17, 2009

Quinn: "This will be a week of reform"

By Bethany Jaeger
The end of August marks a deadline for Gov. Pat Quinn, who has to act on legislation approved by the General Assembly before bills automatically become law. In Chicago today, Quinn deemed this week as a “week of reform,” starting with today’s enactment of the revamped laws to ensure public access to information. He could soon act on ethics legislation to limit the amount individuals and political organizations could donate to candidates.

Freedom of Information Act = Senate Bill 189
Quinn signed SB 189, which rewrites the Freedom of Information Act (background here). Starting in January 2010, the process of requesting public information is supposed to get faster and more accountable.

In addition to new training requirements and higher standards for denying access to information, the new FOIA will require public bodies to reply to requests for information within five business days, as opposed to the current seven days. And if a public body denies a request, individuals will have to take fewer steps and less time to appeal that denial.

“The main thing this new act does is enforce many of the good words that were already part of Illinois law that were ignored by public officials,” said Hanke Gratteau, a member of Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission and former investigative reporter and managing editor for the Chicago Tribune. “There is now recourse if that is avoided, and that’s why it’s good enough for me.”

Local and state governments still can deny access to information under a series of exemptions, and the legislature still can withhold internal documents such as staff analyses and final reports drafted by consultants.

But there are new penalties, something absent from the current FOIA. Under the new version, if a court finds that a public official intentionally violated the FOIA or Open Meetings Act, the official could be fined between $2,400 and $5,000 for each offense.

The new law also gives new powers to the Illinois attorney general's office, where members of the public, media or government can seek help from a specialized lawyer to settle disputes about whether information should be released. The so-called public access counselor will have new authority to issue binding opinions and to subpoena information.

“Today, we can say that Illinois will officially make it out of the Stone Age of transparency,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “We will end the culture of secrecy that surrounds our government, and we will have, I think, a better relationship and better trust with members of the public.”

The Illinois Municipal League, however, believes the new FOIA will place a heavy burden on local governments and won’t go as smoothly as lawmakers think in the next four and a half months, said Roger Huebner, the organization’s deputy executive director and general counsel. Every governmental body covered by the FOIA now has had its primary function fundamentally redefined to field information requests, regardless of whether their budgets have been slashed, he added. More background on the Municipal League’s statements are online.

Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff of policy and communications for the attorney general's office, said she disagrees and that the new law could lessen the burden on local governments because they will have a built-in resource with access to a public access counselor, as opposed to an outside legal counsel.

Heubner referred to commercial requests, in particular, as problematic because they tend to be broad, time-consuming requests. “That’s going to become a financial nightmare.” Local governments still can reject requests by deeming them unduly burdensome.

Heubner also said the new FOIA isn’t written for lay people and that information requests immediately will become legal matters if disputed. “This bill has gone from the hope to help the laymen to the lawyer’s dream.”

Smith said: "If the public body has denied a request and the citizen comes to us for help, then the public body will have to decide if they want to interact with us informally or if they have to get a lawyer. It's certainly not necessary." She added, "I recognize that the public bodies have not looked at this as a benefit to them, but I think that over time, they will see it as just that."

Quinn’s enactment of the new FOIA comes after the governor came under media scrutiny for reportedly using his personal cell phone rather than using a state-provided phone that is subject to public access laws. Quinn said in Chicago today that taxpayers do not pay for his private cell phone and that he doesn’t use it for official state business.

“I do not use this phone to make e-mails to government employees or conduct any kind of communication with government employees,” he said. “As the person of the attorney general’s office who oversees this law [determined], private phone calls that don’t come out of public funds are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”

Transparency = House Bill 35
The state also launched a new Web site where anyone with Internet access can look up state employee salaries, state contacts and state-issued licenses. It’s called the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal.

Individuals also can look up all board and commission members, as well as their terms and whether they get paid at a new site dedicated to executive appointments. It was created under Senate Bill 1602, which also establishes new ethics requirements for board and commission members.

Campaign finance reform = House Bill 7
Quinn indicated he also could act as soon as tomorrow on legislation that would limit the amount individuals and political organizations could donate to political campaigns. HB 7 won legislative approval but was not the version recommended by the governor’s own Illinois Reform Commission. (Background here.)

Quinn could use his amendatory veto power to change the legislation, although he said he uses that power judiciously. “I’m going to use that only where it’s needed and where it can advance the common good. I think that’s the way we have to do it. We don’t do it to kick the legislature in the shins. I don’t believe in that.”

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, said Minority Leader Christine Radogno asked the governor to veto the bill in its entirety "because it’s been called worse than nothing. We believe there is ample opportunity to revisit this if everyone is committed to change,” Schuh said.

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