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Annoying for a good cause

When looking to buy a car, do you want to find out its gas mileage? Do you like to go for a spin? Take a look under the hood?

I'm betting you do.

That's understandable. When you're paying for something, you want to know about it beforehand, not afterward.

And if the salesperson tells you that it's none of your business, you would probably walk away.

But it doesn't quite work that way with government. Take the recent Dixon teachers strike. After the two sides reached an agreement Wednesday, our newspaper asked to see the proposed contract.

No can do, both sides said. They wouldn't give us any details about the agreement.

After some questioning, the school district's assistant superintendent, Margo Empen, said only that she would ask whether the schools would release the contract before the board's vote on Wednesday.

Last year, the Sterling school board approved a teachers union contract, but wouldn't release it upon request. The district said the Freedom of Information Act exempted the document from disclosure because it was a preliminary first draft. However, nothing in the board's meeting agenda indicated it was a first draft; it stated that it was a collective bargaining agreement.

So the board decided against letting taxpayers – you know, the folks paying the bills – see it before "final" approval.

The Dixon school board's attorney, Stan Eisenhammer, said there was no legal barrier to the district releasing the contract after the union has ratified it; the vote is Monday.

But Eisenhammer should know that the Freedom of Information Act doesn't serve up barriers to openness. It merely provides exemptions where public entities may choose to keep documents secret. Given that both sides have negotiated an agreement, no exception applies anyway.

We have some experience with Eisenhammer's law firm. He is with Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Roddick & Kohn law firm in Arlington Heights, which specializes in representing government agencies. In 2011, this was the firm that charged the Rock Falls High School district $4,300 in the unsuccessful effort to keep secret the text messages to a female student that forced a teacher to quit. Without an attorney, we fought for their release.

On behalf of the district, attorney Cynthia DeCola went through a revolving list of excuses to keep the texts under wraps. The attorney general didn't buy any of them and asked the district to release the texts.

In an interview last week, Eisenhammer said union contracts usually are not released to the public before they are finalized by both parties because of the public influence that can result.

Boy, that public influence can be a real pain in a democracy. But the Freedom of Information Act says the presumption is that all government records are open for inspection. Indeed, virtually all government financial information – and that includes the union contract – is public record in Illinois.

We have dealt with the that's-the-way-it's-always-been excuse before. A couple of years ago, then-Lee County Board Chairman Jim Seeberg, R-Ashton, used that very justification in arguing that the board didn't have to let the public know on its meeting agendas what it planned to vote on. Then-State's Attorney Henry Dixon backed him up.

The attorney general set them both straight.

While we have a fairly decent public records law in Illinois, that's not enough. We need to change a culture of secrecy, and that's a much tougher job.

So, government officials, please forgive us if we seem annoying. We're just making sure the public gets, well, public information.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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