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To dream the impossible dream

Tuesday, Mar 6, 2018

* Editorial

Would having access to the correspondence of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, shed light on his handling of sexual harassment allegations by associates?

We don’t know — and it’s designed that way because the documents of Madigan, like all Illinois lawmakers, are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act.

The legislation, enacted in 1984, is a critical tool to ensure our public bodies are transparent and that, to quote the act, “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”

That sounds good, but the General Assembly has elected to exclude one noteworthy group from disclosure rules — lawmakers themselves. The argument is legislators deal with sensitive constituent issues and share draft legislation that are negotiating documents. (Congress has a similar exemption and cites similar logic.)

That means a citizen can get, say, five years’ worth of internal emails of the local township cemetery board, the calendar of Gov. Bruce Rauner and any other documents related public business, but can’t see any paperwork for our elected citizen legislature.

For Madigan, that also means all correspondence is exempt for his two high-profile positions — as speaker, which he’s held since 1983, and as head of the state Democratic party, his position since 1998.

* It’s certainly true that the GA exempted itself. Here’s the law

Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated, except that a specific record or relevant portion of a record shall not be exempt when the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body. The exemption provided in this paragraph (f) extends to all those records of officers and agencies of the General Assembly that pertain to the preparation of legislative documents. […]

A person whose request to inspect or copy a public record is denied by a public body, except the General Assembly and committees, commissions, and agencies thereof, may file a request for review with the Public Access Counselor established in the Office of the Attorney General not later than 60 days after the date of the final denial.

And, etc.

* The original FOIA law has its roots in the Illinois Constitution

Reports and records of the obligation, receipt and use of public funds of the State, units of local government and school districts are public records available for inspection by the public according to law.

And this is from the Constitution’s Executive article

All officers of the Executive Branch shall keep accounts and shall make such reports as may be required by law. They shall provide the Governor with information relating to their respective offices, either in writing under oath, or otherwise, as the Governor may require.

There is no such language in the Legislature’s article, which is an argument legislators use when they say they were meant to be exempted. The same goes for the judicial article. The courts have also ruled that because the GA didn’t include the judiciary in the FOIA statute, the judicial branch was exempted. So, I highly doubt the folks in black robes will ever open that Pandora’s Box by prying open GA records.

Also, I have no idea how a state government could legally subject a political campaign committee to the FOIA laws.

* Look, I’d love to see the GA covered by FOIA. But unless somebody wants to go out and gather enough petition signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot (and that could work because it may fall under the “Amendments shall be limited to structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV” language) not much can be done unless GA members voluntarily do it themselves.

Fat chance of that happening.

…Adding… From an attorney…

If you look on the GA website, both the House and Senate have memos with categories of items available under FOIA. What isn’t available is personal correspondence (e.g. letters constituents send to their members). Also, the draft exemption applies to all units of government, not just the GA.

* From the list of available documents

• Quorum calls for meetings of the House and House Committees
• Legislation and motions filed by members of the House, including roll call of voting
• Reports and fiscal notes filed with the Clerk
• Documents filed in House Committee hearings (roll calls, witness slips, notices of
action)
• Transcripts and audio recordings of House floor debate
• Video of House floor debate (2005 to present)
• Audio recordings of House Committee hearings
• Vouchers and documents detailing District Office expenditures
• Vouchers and documents detailing House Operations and Leadership expenditures
• Official Journals of the House
• District Office leases
• Personnel Rules adopted by each member for their District Offices
• Name, title, start date and salary for employees of the House
• Property inventories for House Operations, Leadership, and District Offices

* Related…

* How open record laws are applied in state legislatures

- Posted by Rich Miller        

14 Comments
  1. - Grand Avenue - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 11:32 am:

    Paging Pat Quinn

    Paging Pat Quinn


  2. - VanillaMan - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 11:40 am:

    We can do this incrementally and without empty accusations. Make the reforms apply to future legislatures.


  3. - thechampaignlife - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 12:04 pm:

    If they were subject to FOIA themselves, they would likely tighten the reins on FOIA abuse. But one person’s unduly burdensome request is another’s expose into misspending or corruption.

    That is to say, careful what you wish for journalists. Sure, you might get to see the lawmakers’ emails. But you might also end up with even more records exempt from disclosure.


  4. - Bigtwich - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 12:06 pm:

    I believe Speaker Madigan is willing to allow access to all of his emails.


  5. - Lucky Pierre - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 12:11 pm:

    they call the legislature the “people’s house” in most states

    That does not apply in Illinois where it is the Democratic special interest’s house


  6. - DuPage Saint - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 12:22 pm:

    The Clerk of the Circuit Court office is considered judicial and not subject to FOIA. DuPage Clerk has a FOIA officer. When I asked why was told to explain why not covered by FOIA


  7. - My New Handle - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 12:49 pm:

    Legislators like to be exempted from laws they pass on others. During the debate on prohibiting smoking in public buildings, Barbara Flynn Currie wanted to make sure the law did not prohibit smoking in legislators’ “private offices” in the statehouse or the Stratton Bldg. What joke… and how does does any legislator have a private office in these public buildings?


  8. - Langhorne - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 1:10 pm:

    Legislators aren’t exactly courageous. Imagine if a legislator was researching fetal tissue research, limiting tax exemptions for veterans restaurants/halls, or taxing retirement income. If that was FOIA-able, they would be ripped to shreds, before even introducing a bill.


  9. - Anon - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 1:27 pm:

    I work at the district office for a member of the GA, and while I reflexively side with transparency, I can say that unfettered email access would be disastrous. I regularly get emails that contain a lot of people’s sensitive financial, fiscal, and personal information.

    People reach out to our office so we can advocate for them to various state and local agencies, and they rarely do this when everything is peachy in their lives. They come to us in their time of need, and if any of their personal, often tragic stories came to light, that would be a huge breach of trust. Not to mention the financial info that could be acquired and fraudulently abused that would result. If they do pad something like this, PLEASE allow some discretion, if not reactions.

    And before you say anything, I’m clocked out and on my lunch break 😂


  10. - Amanda Vinicky - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 1:34 pm:

    The Chicago Headline Club recently held a forum, where this very question was poised to the Democratic candidates for AG.
    There are nuggets throughout, but the issue of the preliminary drafts exemption is about 35 minutes in, and the notion of the legislative exemption is at 38:40.
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1grcrfKFalDPJXxJA34YholQbhMM9uR_a/view


  11. - Thomas Paine - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 2:14 pm:

    If the legislature were subject to FOIA, you could obtain every email sent by every NRA member to every lawmaker.

    That would be awesome.


  12. - thechampaignlife - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 3:24 pm:

    Anon@1:27:

    There definitely is not unfettered email access. There are already plenty of exemptions to handle the privacy concerns that you raised. For instance, the State Police and DCFS deal with similarly sensitive records but they can protect the privacy of children, crime victims, etc.


  13. - Right Field - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 3:47 pm:

    Heck, I want to see the legislature subject to the Open Meetings Act. Now THAT would be real entertainment.


  14. - lake county democrat - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 4:33 pm:

    “Representative/Senator ___, will you voluntarily adopt the terms of the FOIA as your office’s policy?”


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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