Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lawmakers approve FOIA exemptions

By Rachel Wells

Public employee evaluations would be sealed to the public if Gov. Pat Quinn signs a measure that opponents say would roll back major reforms made last year in the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The change would expand an exemption that Quinn signed into law earlier this year exempting performance evaluations of teachers, principals and superintendents. The new changes are part of legislation meant to improve Illinois’ chances at earning federal education grant funding. Proponents argued that opening up the evaluations to the public would devalue them, as those writing the evaluations might be less candid, and that treating educators differently from other state employees would not be fair.

“There has to be a line that we draw that we do protect the personal interest of people, [that] we do let them know that because you are a public employee, we trust that you will come to work and do a good job,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat and sponsor of House Bill 5154. “And if you don’t, then you will be disciplined by the employer, not by John Q Public. There has to be a dividing line.”

Opponents call the measure a step back in Illinois’ progress toward a more open government and worry lawmakers will further degrade last year’s FOIA reforms.

“We are concerned that more bills will come down the pike to further shove public information into the shadows,” said Melissa Hahn, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.

Although Lightford has said there’s no connection between the union-backed FOIA change and recent changes to the state’s pension systems, which unions adamantly opposed, Hahn said she’s not convinced.

“The unions lost when it came to pensions, so lawmakers are giving them this to help make up for it,” Hahn said.

The pension legislation went through both houses in one day on March 24, about a year after Quinn first proposed the measure. The House approved the FOIA changes on March 11 , and the Senate approved the measure today.

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