If you want to set attorneys in motion, file a Freedom of Information Act request.
That's the law that allows citizens to examine public records – an essential part of our democracy.
The other day, Kayce Ataiyero, a spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department, said that when a citizen files a Freedom of Information Act request, that begins a "legal process."
I protested, but she wouldn't have it.
"It's a fact," Ataiyero said.
She's right about the reality. Most government agencies involve attorneys when they get requests for public records.
Many government documents are completely open for public viewing – most notably financial records. But even requests to see those types of documents are run through attorneys.
Some disagree that public records requests should spark a "legal process," including Bob Trapp, managing editor of the Rio Grande Sun weekly newspaper in Española, N.M. His paper is hardly a Chamber of Commerce-endorsed, go-along-to-get-along publication. It serves as a vigilant watchdog for its readers, exercising its rights under public records laws regularly.
In a recent interview, Trapp told me he would prefer to just ask for documents, rather than go through the formal process.
"Why do lawyers need to look at the request first? I don't know if it's lawyers creating work for themselves," he said.
Sometimes, Trapp said, the records custodian may be excessively cautious and goes to an attorney on all public records issues. That often happens in an environment in which officials fight the concept of open government, he said.
It's also costly to involve lawyers. Last year, the Rock Falls High School district spent up to $4,300 in a futile effort to keep public records secret in response to our request. Our legal bill: $0.
Under state law, all records are presumed open. Secrecy is the exception. In other words, agencies don't always have to lawyer up.
Sauk Valley Media reporter David Giuliani covers the Whiteside and Lee county governments, Morrison and other smaller communities. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525.