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Give us all freedom of information
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 8/7/2009 12:00 AM

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Dear Gov. Patrick Quinn:

More than 40 days ago, state legislators sent you a bill that would dramatically improve citizens' ability to access critical information from their governments. We write today to urge you to sign it into law without further delay.

The current Freedom of Information Act is weak and provides government officials at all levels with far too many ways to withhold information or postpone producing and turning it over. It allows them to charge too much for information we've all already funded through our taxes.

Citizens throughout the suburbs and the state have to fight battles far too often to get data they deserve. Several months ago, we at the Daily Herald had trouble getting even the most basic information about citizens who wanted to run for public office. It took a few phone calls from the Public Access Counselor in the Attorney General's office to produce some candidates' names and addresses, a basic need in a democracy.

Our reporters battled some bureaucrats for months when we tried to learn about red-light cameras for our recent "Seeing Red" investigative series. One village clerk said we didn't need the documents because others had reported on the cameras. Another village official called the request a waste of time.

In all, it took more than two months to obtain documents about a government program operating all over the region. It should take seven days under the existing loophole-ridden law.

We need the significant improvements in the new bill to become law with your signature. Citizens need it. Too often, average people are stonewalled who need and deserve information about a crash that took a loved one's life or about how much their public workers are paid or about how funds are spent to protect us from terrorism.

We understand, governor, that you're also hearing from government groups, including the Illinois State's Attorneys Association. They suggest prosecutors handle violations rather than a public access counselor and that the bill be revised to remove mandatory attorneys' fees. Are these the same prosectors who rightfully say they're understaffed? State's attorneys have a history of prosecuting violent criminals and rarely have gone after governments operating in secret. We agree with the Illinois Press Association's view that without the counselor and with mandatory fees, average people will continue to be denied what should be very public information.

Decades ago, governor, you made a name for yourself in Illinois starting the Citizens Utility Board and collecting thousands of signatures to give citizens a say on how their state government should be composed. You made a name for yourself as a champion of the average people.

Freedom of information for average people, for all people, is the foundation of a vibrant democracy. We need that restored in Illinois. Please sign the better Freedom of Information Act in Senate Bill 189 now.