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Question of the day

Thursday, Oct 11, 2018

* Let’s return to ProPublica’s story on the attorney general’s public access office (PAC), which handles FOIA disputes

“Here’s what they need to do: Pull the plug on the PAC’s office,” said Bruce Rushton, a staff writer for the Illinois Times newspaper who has written about delays and inaction from the office. Rushton argued that the attorney general’s office is too politicized to oversee disputes involving other politicians and government bodies, including state agencies it’s charged with representing in court.

“Only a fool would put an elected official in Illinois in charge of riding herd on other elected officials,” Rushton said. “But that’s what we’ve done.”

Madigan was not available for an interview, according to a spokeswoman. But other officials in her office said the PAC has helped thousands of people access government information while leading a shift in the culture of the state toward more transparency.

“We started from scratch and created this, and I think we really do help people every day,” said Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff.

“We have areas where we need to improve,” she acknowledged. But in addition to its rulings, Spillane stressed that the office provides education to the public on open-government laws, including through a hotline. “We’re one of the rare places in government where you can pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer.”

* The Question: Should the public access counselor’s office be removed from the attorney general and set up as an independent office? Take the poll and then explain your answer in comments, please. And if you vote “Yes,” tell us how you would set it up.

survey software

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Anonish - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:23 pm:

    I say no.
    I’m generally a little skeptical that any so called independent office in government can truly be so. They have to be hired by someone and that person has an agenda. I think that it makes sense to have this function in the AG office. They already have the legal weight of the overall office behind them and they don’t have to ask someone else to help enforce it.

  2. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:24 pm:

    I wouldn’t describe honoring an FOIA request riding herd. Does Mr. Rushton have proof that PAC has been used this way?

  3. - Real - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:29 pm:

    I say no.. Just because an office can be set up to be independent doesn’t mean it will remain so.. It could eventually become a puppet of someone.

  4. - Perrid - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:39 pm:

    I voted no, I have my doubts that it would ever be completely independent anywhere else, or standalone. I do think it needs to be more of a priority than it is now, the ProPublica report makes it seem like they are over worked and don’t make as many binding decisions as they could/maybe should.

  5. - Juice - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:40 pm:

    “Only a fool would put an elected official in Illinois in charge…”

    Then who decides who serves in this position? In democracies, most positions should either be elected, or appointed by someone who is elected. That’s where accountability comes from.

    And given that most of the requests to the state are for agencies under the governor, I’m not sure they should be the person to make the appointment. Most requests generally are to units of local government. But members of the GA are much more willing to cave in to their complaints than anyone in the executive branch is, so they shouldn’t make the appointment. If Bruce’s argument is that the PAC should have a guaranteed term in office or something like, its not unreasonable. I’m just not sure that is what he is getting at. So I voted no.

  6. - Earnest - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:40 pm:

    I voted ‘no.’ I find it hard to picture a non-partisan option, and these are legal opinions so the AG office seems like the logical place. Then I ask myself how I would feel if we had an AG who considered themselves a governor’s wing-man. I think I’d feel the same, so long as citizens could avail themselves of the courts.

  7. - Reserved - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:43 pm:

    Voted no, I doubt any “independent” office can be set up in Illinois in this political climate.

    Reading the linked article shows the vast majority of appeals are related to the Dept. Of Corrections, so I’m guessing inmates are making the appeals, how about stripping felons currently incarcerated from submitting and appealing FOIAs?

  8. - Anonymous - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 2:50 pm:

    Broader question: Is it time to appoint rather than elect our attorney general?

  9. - Chicago Cynic - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:06 pm:

    I voted yes. We should have an independent board of journalists and former government types who appreciate the real world challenges. Then fund it adequately to have a decent staff. One of the biggest problems is that the PAC under the AG is simply grossly understaffed. That’s not their fault. But it seriously compromises their mission.

  10. - the Patriot - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:19 pm:

    No, my experience is the PAC is often wrong, but not politically motivated. FOIA is an unfunded mandate to local government.

    Everyone wants open government, no one wants to pay someone to do the paperwork.

    This system is terrible, but draft a better proposal. “independent office” This is IL, not a bubble.

  11. - Anon - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:24 pm:

    I said yes. The office is being influenced by politics under AG Madigan. Instead of interpreting and applying the law, the PAC is actively modifying the law. Personally, I believe that because she is hamstrung and can’t investigate real corruption in state government, she attempts to make her bones with FOIA and OMA. It needs to be reined in.

  12. - #1 Anon - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:35 pm:

    Yes, but not because PAC is influenced by politics. However, if freed from this quasi-judicial role on FOIA, the AG can (and should) be more proactive pursuing FOIA violations as a litigant. That is in keeping with AGs role representing the People.

  13. - Annonin' - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:37 pm:

    Voted “no”
    Ain’t broke no need to fix.
    Put out full disclosure on reformers before turning over to them.

  14. - JS Mill - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 3:54 pm:

    Voted “No”. In my experience the PAC office is competent, if understaffed, and non-political.

  15. - Norseman - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 4:26 pm:

    No. The problem, as with many things in government, is that the solons create a mandate and then fail to properly fund it’s implementation. If you don’t like the PAC, file suit yourself.

  16. - illini - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 4:56 pm:

    I’ve counted 2 “yes” comments. I guess the other 121 who voted that way in the poll have no idea how to implement this.

  17. - Bruce Rushton - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 5:26 pm:

    ==I wouldn’t describe honoring an FOIA request riding herd. Does Mr. Rushton have proof that PAC has been used this way?==

    In May of 2015, the Wall Street Journal asked for help from the AG’s office after Chicago cops refused to turn over a copy of the Laquan McDonald video. The AG did nothing substantive to pry this loose until the day before a judge ordered it released in November of 2015. That’s more than five months after the AG was asked to help, and by the time the AG finally issued an opinion, it was, as I understand things, an advisory opinion. Why advisory? Because the deadline to issue a binding opinion, which had a teensy weensy bit more power than an advisory opinion had passed. Of course, it was just a coincidence that the AG issued its opinion on day before the judge ruled in the lawsuit filed by an independent journalist that was a slam-dunk from the get-go. Of course. In my view, the AG was a co-conspirator in a conspiracy of silence regarding the McDonald case. She could have done something, including hauling the cops to court to force disclosure. She could have, at least, used her office as a bully pulpit. She did nothing at all until it became clear that the video, thanks to the courts, was going to become public.

    Fast foward to late spring of 2017, when I asked the AG for help prying loose the personnel file of Candace Wanzo, the woman who was put in admin leave for reasons that remain mysterious. White hired her even though she was a convicted felon who had stolen more than $200,000 from SIU. She also got popped for using a state car to commute from her home near St. Louis to her job in Springfield. I thought the public deserved to know what White knew and when he knew it–did the secretary of state know that Wanzo was a thief when he hired her? If not, why not? Was she disciplined for inappropriate use of a state car? If not, why not? Pretty basic stuff. I asked the AG for help in June of 2017, and I’m still waiting for an answer. I haven’t gotten a yes and I haven’t gotten a no–no binding opinion, no advisory opinion, no thanks for playing what do we have for our departing contestant. I’ve gotten zero, and this is pretty basic stuff. Other governmental bodies, ranging from local school boards to the Department of Corrections, turn this stuff over as a matter of course without complaint.

    And then we have Bruce Rauner, who, at least twice, has gotten dinged by Madigan’s office for hiding appointment calendars. That’s important, sure, but I’m not sure that it’s as important as a kid who gets shot 16 times by a cop, or an embezzler who gets hired by the secretary of state and remains on the payroll, still owing six figures in restitution. It may or may not be political, but it sure as heck stinks.

    That’s what I meant when I said that putting elected officials in charge of riding herd on other elected officials is a fool’s mission in Illinois. An independent commission isn’t going to help, because there’s no way that I can see to make such a commission truly independent.

    What we need are strong laws with teeth. In Florida, it’s a crime to hide public records. In Washington state, scofflaws have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for failure to follow the law. Neither state has a PAC or anything close to it–at last check, there wasn’t a full-time employee in either office assigned to FOIA matters. What both states have are thousands of de facto PACs. They’re called lawyers, and they sue when the government breaks the law and they collect money that makes it worth their while. And government is more open in both states because there are consequences to breaking the law.

    In Illinois, we spend something north of $1 million a year on a PAC office staffed with lawyers who churn out paper-tiger opinions that public agencies ranging from Illinois State Police to the Chicago Public Schools have learned they can ignore without consequences. That, to me, is a ridiculous waste of money. Go look at the binding opinions Madigan has issued and count how many say “Public bodies must respond to FOIA requests.” That’s what we’re paying lawyers to do, write five-page letters to Chicago Public Schools and others telling them that the law requires them to respond to FOIA requests.

    The media is complicit here. In 2005, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded Lisa Madigan its coveted Sunshine Award for her efforts at opening government. That was five years before the much ballyhooed reform of FOIA ushered in post Blago that, among other things, codified the PAC. Madigan has long trumpeted this Sunshine Award. It makes one throw up a bit, really. Why would Madigan change anything when she’s already gotten a big national award from the fourth estate and she’s almost never held accountable for the PAC’s performance?

  18. - yinn - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 5:29 pm:

    == FOIA is an unfunded mandate to local government.==

    No, it’s not. One of the basic functions of government is to provide information to citizens. From Illinois FOIA: “Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that 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 consistent with the terms of this Act.”

    To the question: I answered no, because my experiences suggest that the attorneys in the PAC’s office are way more objective than some of the other “experts” suggested for an “independent” office, who tend to judge who is a “legitimate” FOIA requester vs. a FOIA “abuser.” Also the hotline is great.

  19. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 6:29 pm:

    I voted yes. One thing I think that is missing in the discussion here is that AG Madigan has always tried to make her office a revenue generator, and I think part of that means suppressing growth in the areas that do not make money like FOIA. To implement the new PAC, I think making the head of the new PAC a long term appointment, like 10 years, but with Senate conformation hopefully would make it less political. I don’t think the powers have to change, but it should have its own budget.

  20. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 6:35 pm:

    ===but it should have its own budget===

    Lots of legislators are former mayors. And mayors hate FOIA. I doubt that budget would be robust.

  21. - Southside Markie - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 6:52 pm:

    Big Yes. It took 3-1/2 years for the PAC to respond. By then, the request had long since lost its relevancy. Next time, I’m skipping the AG and going straight to court.

  22. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Thursday, Oct 11, 18 @ 7:53 pm:

    == And mayors hate FOIA. ==

    I bet the smaller town mayors hate it more than Mayor Emanuel. It is obviously pretty important to know what you’re doing in terms of FOIA for top tier executives though. Maybe one day some of them will figure it out.

    But I don’t disagree that the solution could lead to the same problems.

  23. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Monday, Oct 15, 18 @ 10:42 am:

    1. Everyone waits. 5 months isn’t to your liking but with 30,000 requests and 12 staff it takes a long time. Most journalists prefer to go to the courts to save time.
    2. Driving a state car? How is that more important than Fleck’s water meter? But both AG candidates say they will ask for more revenue to speed things up.
    3. Employee Sarah Pratt says she and her fellow workers never do anything for political reasons and have never been asked to do anything for political reasons.
    4.I assume you voted no for independent commission.
    5.Spillane said if the current or previous governor had a blanket order to the agencies under him to honor FOIA requests it would have freed up more resources for PAC.
    7. Madigan was behind the development of PAC in the first place. Before she did this we had nothing.

  24. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Monday, Oct 15, 18 @ 10:45 am:

    6. Molly’s law was passed and signed by Rauner.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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