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As It Is: 5 things about government openness

This is Sunshine Week, which celebrates access to public information.

In Illinois, we have two laws that help shine more sunlight on the workings of government — the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.

Here are five things you should know about the our state's sunshine laws:

1. Anyone can seek information. The laws promoting government openness are for everyone, not just reporters and lawyers. No matter who you are, you have the right to examine government records. You do not need to state a purpose, and you need no special qualifications. If you believe a government entity has illegally refused to release information, you can appeal the denial to the state attorney general's office.

2. You get to watch government in action. When your local government board makes a decision, it must do so in public. No exceptions. Last year, the Marseilles City Council informed the local chamber of commerce it decided to revoke its membership, yet the council never voted on the matter in public. We and the chamber took the issue to the attorney general's office, which ruled the council violated the open meetings law. The council since has taken a public vote revoking its chamber membership.

3. It's not hard to ask for records. These days, all you have to do is send an email requesting information. Be specific about what you want. Some government entities ask people to use their special forms to request documents, but no form can be required. Heck, you can make out your request on a napkin, but I wouldn't recommend it.

4. Don't abuse the public records law. Unfortunately, some people use the Freedom of Information Act to harass government officials. Remember there are human beings answering these requests. And for really small entities such as townships, be sensitive to the fact they may not have received a request in years. At the same time, government entities should keep their files organized, so they can easily respond to requests for information. I try not to overwhelm officials with requests. In 2017, I submitted 125 requests, more than the previous year's 83. They are spread out over many agencies.

5. Public bodies usually charge nothing for documents. Under the law, they cannot charge for the first 50 pages of a request. Usually, they charge nothing because the records come electronically, so there are no copies involved. I cannot remember the last time I paid for documents.
  • David Giuliani is a reporter for The Times. His weekly column "As It Is" expands upon regular news coverage by adding his insight and ideas. He can be reached at 815-431-4041 or Follow him on Twitter at @tt_dgiuliani.

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