Keep your eyes on Illinois.
Thanks in large measure to the Chicago Headline Club (the Chicago SPJ chapter), media organizations have worked with local government leaders and Illinois’ new attorney general to improve their state’s FOI climate, proving once again that when journalists knock on the door of government at the right time, all citizens can benefit.
Some quick background: In the spring of 1999, Illinois media conducted a statewide “open records audit” of local government entities. That audit, like so many before and after, found dreadful compliance with the state’s open records law. Auditors walked out with the records they sought only about one-third of the time. While the stories that resulted from the audit led some within state government to suggest improvements to revise Illinois’ open records law, those efforts fell short.
Flash forward to the November election of 2002. Illinois voters chose state Sen. Lisa Madigan of Chicago as their new attorney general. Madigan’s campaign featured a call to close loopholes in the state’s Freedom of Information Act and to create a public access counselor similar to a position in neighboring Indiana (a position created in the wake of Indiana’s ground-breaking 1997 public records audit).
Among the people Madigan impressed with her understanding of the situation was Phil Kadner, a columnist and associate editor of The Daily Southtown and Freedom of Information Chair for the Headline Club.
“I tend to ask people about these issues,” Kadner said, “and many times I just get blank looks. With her I saw a spark. She felt there was a real need to make (Illinois’ FOI laws) tougher and for the enforcement to be stronger.”
On Nov. 22, less than three weeks after Madigan’s election victory, Kadner wrote to Madigan to remind her of her campaign pledges and to seek a meeting about how to improve the FOI Act.
“We realize there will be many competing interests seeking your attention in the coming weeks and want to be assured that the commitments you made during the campaign will remain priorities in your new administration,” Kadner wrote. “Providing the public with access to government documents and requiring open meetings provides an early warning system regarding public corruption by allowing citizens to watchdog their elected officials.”
Madigan responded affirmatively, and on Dec. 18, more than a dozen representatives of media and government gathered to begin the discussion with members of Madigan’s incoming staff.
“I’m thrilled that we were able to get such a positive response so quickly,” said Headline Club President Molly McDonough. In all, three chapter members were named to the working group – Kadner, Jim Reindl of the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune senior counsel Michael Lufrano, who was named one of the group’s two co-chairs.
The potential for discord among the working group’s members was evident from the beginning. Kadner said the media began with “a sort of wish list” of improvements – better access to electronic records, verbatim records for meetings held behind closed doors, etc.
The government representatives had other ideas. At one point, Lufrano’s fellow co-chair, Quincy, Ill., Mayor Charles Scholtz, said he believed all present would agree that the state’s open meetings act was adequate as written. The response, according to Kadner: “Several members representing the news media shouted ‘no’ in unison to voice their disagreement.”
In the end, the group issued a divided report. “What we did is do a pro and con,” said Kadner. “We submitted a report to the attorney general saying, ‘Here’s what those on the journalism side think and here’s why the municipal officials disagree.’ “
On one issue, however, the group reached a surprising – and unanimous – consensus: the need for a state public access counselor similar to Indiana’s. In fact, elected officials in the working group were comforted by the fact that roughly half of the calls to Indiana’s counselor come from government entities.
“Both government folks and people in the media have very positive things to say about the (Indiana office),” Kadner said. “It’s not necessarily an adversarial relationship. It’s for everybody.”
The working group has asked Madigan to create a public access counselor within her office for an initial two-year period, with the understanding that the position may become an independent office if ongoing funding can be found elsewhere in the state budget.
Madigan took the oath of office on Jan. 13, with the working group’s recommendations already on her desk. Said McDonough, “We’re hopeful that this is going to result in better and easier access for reporters – and for the public – to information in Illinois.”
Kadner notes that there’s still work to do and that this breakthrough follows long years of efforts by Illinois media on FOI issues. Still, his chapter’s role in making something happen is undeniable.
“I’d like to believe the Chicago Headline Club was the driving force behind this,” said Kadner. “But I also wouldn’t have wasted my time if there was another attorney general elected. I thought we had an opportunity here to do something.”
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.