Thursday, April 22, 2010

FOIA law may be tweaked again

By Rachel Wells

Concerned citizens would no longer have access to any portion of any public employee performance evaluations, under a measure that moved through a Senate committee today.

Earlier this year, evaluations for teachers, principal sand superintendents became exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act as legislators worked to gain enough support for Race to the Top legislation, which ties student growth to educators’ evaluations. The latest legislation, HB 5154, stems from related negotiations and would expand the exemption to all public employee evaluations.

Treating all public employees equally is important, said Tim Drea, secretary-treasurer of Illinois’ American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), adding that disclosing evaluations could devalue them. “If a supervisor believes that an evaluation will be made public, he or she may say, ‘Well, you’re fine, I just don’t want any problems from anybody,’” Drea said. “Other employees are looking, and it just does not contribute to a healthy work environment.”

Itasca Republican Sen. Carole Pankau, who opposes the measure, said that evaluation results, a final rating or grade for instance, should become public information. “I think that’s a reasonable request,” Pankau said.

“I think verifying employment is fair, but to go into great details, I think that’s a little unfair,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat.

Those who successfully pushed FOIA reforms last year in SB 189 say the new measure would unravel those efforts.

“It shoots a major hole in one of the reforms that we had badly wanted,” said Beth Bennett, government relations director with the Illinois Press Association. Last year, the association had worked to make the results of performance evaluations available for public scrutiny. Personal information such as medical concerns and Social Security numbers remained exempt, Bennett said.

The Illinois attorney general’s office, which pushed for last year’s reforms, agreed the new legislation weakens the FOIA law.

“The reworking of FOIA has just been in effect for four months,” attorney general spokesperson Scott Mulford said. “It has to be given time to work.”

None of the opponents, who also included the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, testified during today’s Senate hearing. Bennett said conversations with Senate members lead the Press Association “to believe that there probably wasn’t going to be a real debate of the issue.”

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