Local Governments Are Blocking Access to Public Information

Public officials withhold data

By Steve Rhodes
|  Thursday, Oct 22, 2009  |  Updated 1:40 PM CDT
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Small Towns, Big Obstacles to Democracy

Hinsdale is one of the suburbs named in the Tribune report.

A lot of those cute little towns and prosperous suburbs out beyond the city limits that are so often so proud to fly the American flag are run by leaders who must think they are in Russia.

But many nearby municipal governments and their agencies are blocking information as if they were operating in the Eastern bloc and not the Western suburbs.

It's bad enough that ordinary citizens can't get access to public information when they are, in fact, the public. They own that information.

Now the Chicago Tribune has found that even officials in many of those towns, like village board members, can't get public information out of the very governments they are a part of.

"Public bodies have gotten comfortable with an unenforceable law and have gotten very good at roadblocks, making it brutally difficult to give access to information that the public is entitled to or board members are entitled to," the deputy chief of staff to state Attorney General Lisa Madigan told the paper.

Among those the Tribune cites for blocking democracy: Hinsdale, Lemont, Island Lake, the DuPage County Water Commission, and a school district in Palatine.

"[I]n the last five years, we've been seeing a growing trend of public bodies taking action to squash out board members who are a political minority and make them as ineffective as possible," Terry Pastika, the executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, told the paper. "They may be on the board, but now they're getting shut down."

It's not news to many citizens - and reporters - that getting public information out of suburban governments can be just as challenging as getting public information out of noted tyrannies like the City of Chicago and the County of Cook. But refusing elements within the government takes stonewalling to a new level.

One sign of hope: A new law going into effect on January 1 gives the state attorney general more power to enforce the public information laws - laws that those who are charged to enforce all too often ignore.

Steve Rhodes is the proprietor of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.

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