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A start, but only that, on openness
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 7/21/2010 12:00 AM

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No one expected that a new law requiring more openness in government would by itself suddenly spur officials to get religion about what the "public" in public documents means. But the state's new Freedom of Information law that took effect Jan. 1 was a promising start.

Now, more than six months later, Daily Herald staff writer Bob Susnjara has shown the law was just that - promising, but just a start.

In a pair of stories this week, Susnjara described how even when the law has pried loose some documents, officials can still apply such broad interpretations of the requirements that they effectively withhold information,

And governments can still just flat-out stall, as in the case of Plainfield Unit District 202, which continues to withhold details of a sexual harassment investigation of a former school principal six months after the Daily Herald first began seeking it through the new FOI law. We believe the citizens - and leaders - of Grayslake High School District 127, which hired the principal last year and then accepted his resignation in December, deserve to know the nature of the claims he had faced. The Plainfield schools disagree, and both sides continue to await the results of an attorney general's review.

So, clearly, the new law has not prevented officials from keeping secrets. But it has had its successes. For one, as Susnjara's report showed, it has opened to consideration, at least, thousands of files that previously might have been kept secret. Government watchdog groups are actually taking heart that the nine attorneys in the attorney general's Freedom of Information Act unit have a workload of some 2,500 requests since January. Many of those requests, watchdogs say, would never have been filed previously. Now, there's a chance that interested parties - like the many agencies that sought and received some information on the suicides of political fundraiser Christopher Kelly and Chicago Public Schools chief Michael Scott - will get access to information to help them better understand how, and how well, their governments are being run.

Brian Day, an attorney who works with a statewide agency on behalf of governments, says that municipalities' delays on FOIA responses have more to do with "procedure and process" than releasing information, and many governments complain about the costs they're now incurring trying to comply with the new law.

But we're inclined to think that if more governing bodies made records available and easily accessible from the outset - as did Cary Elementary District 26 and Grayslake Elementary District 46, the complaints of both procedure and cost would be considerably diminished.

The new law, it appears, is pointing governments in that direction. One watchdog told Susnjara more tinkering may occur to get it even more on target. Considering the disappointing work that's already been done - exempting job evaluations of many public employees from release - we're not confident more tinkering is a good idea. Yes, the new FOIA is off to a promising start, but fulfillment of that promise will come from moves only in the direction of more, not less, openness.