Blocking the Right to Know Statewide Probe Finds Agencies Flout Open Record Laws

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Wills and Chris Fusco Associated Press and Daily Herald writers

Requests for public documents in Illinois may be met with hostile questions, bureaucratic delays and even threats. But in many cases, citizens won't get the information they sought - at least not quickly.

The Daily Herald and 14 other news organizations joined forces on a statewide check of how easily people can get public records. The project found most officials were slow to provide documents or refused, despite a state Freedom of Information Act that mandates disclosure.

More than a quarter of the time, officials did not honor requests, even after given time to seek legal advice or compile records. And even in cases where they provided information, they did so only after delays.

Reporters were sent to all 102 counties, where they visited the county clerk, jail, city clerk of the largest city and superintendent of the largest school district. They asked for a relatively obscure item - a list of all public documents maintained by the various offices - and such routine public documents as a log of inmates, travel vouchers and city council minutes.

Generally, urban counties did a better job of providing the information. They turned it over more than two-thirds of the time, compared with far less than 60 percent in more rural counties. Some governments, including the city of Crystal Lake, even offered detailed explanations of their public information policies.

Nonetheless, government employees throughout the state questioned reporters about their identity, profession and purpose about half the time. Citizens are not required to provide these items when seeking public records.

Among the agencies that proved difficult in the six-county region:

- A supervisor at the Kane County jail did not believe a reporter when she told him she did not have to offer her purpose for copying a log of inmates. When she pulled out a copy of the law, he responded, "This isn't true." The reporter later received the log, but only after she agreed to provide a copy of her driver's license.

- Employees at the Chicago city clerk's office were perplexed by a request for the list of public documents maintained by the city. "Never did I feel like I was being intentionally stonewalled," the reporter wrote, but she left the office without anyone understanding her request.

- At the DuPage County jail, a request for the inmate log was treated dismissively - "nothing like that exists." When the reporter persisted, she was passed to a secretary, passed back to the booking desk, and was told to wait while a lieutenant was summoned. She filled out a Freedom of Information Act form, sent it in and never heard back.

- Two McHenry County clerk's employees "were positive" the office had no list of public documents the county would make available. The reporter later was notified the list existed and picked it up.

- After going to the Cook County jail, a reporter was sent downtown Chicago to the Daley Center to get a copy of the log. "Later that week, (an official) called and told me the copying cost would be in excess of $2,000," he wrote. He later received a certified letter stating he could inspect the log.

Nearly 60 percent of the time - in 354 out of 605 visits - the reporters had to get out a copy of the law and point out where it required disclosure of the documents, either because officials refused to release the information or because they did not know they were supposed to be compiling it.

Ignorance of the law often seemed to be as much a problem as hostility toward it.

By law, you have the right to check to see if your home's assessed value matches that of similar homes. You have the right to see how much government employees are being paid. You have the right to find out who owns certain property or who is being held at the jail or any number of nosy questions. …