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 probably would 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.
At first, the school district was saying it might release the document before the board meets this Wednesday. Now it’s saying it will – on Wednesday. But that doesn’t give the public much lead time. We won’t be able to put details in our newspaper until after the vote.
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. Nothing in the board’s meeting agenda indicated it was a first draft, however; 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 using 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.
Eisenhammer also said government entities in Illinois don’t usually release union contracts until after they’re finalized.
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.
Subsidies work both ways
The Sterling school district has every right to leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, which combines resources among area districts to provide services for special needs students.
Sterling, which accounts for one-third of the students in the cooperative, says it can save $160,000 a year by handling the function itself.
In essence, Sterling has been subsidizing the other districts through the cooperative, which serves districts in Whiteside and Carroll counties. So it’s easy to see why the district has decided to withdraw from the cooperative: It wants to save taxpayers’ money – a laudable goal.
Still, the Sterling district’s decision somehow feels unneighborly. Shouldn’t we all be in this together – especially when it comes to special-needs students?
The bigger question: Will the total cost of special-needs services rise in the two counties after Sterling separates? If the answer is yes, then the area as a whole suffers, while one part will benefit.
Sterling should keep in mind that while it subsidizes the other districts through the cooperative, it works both ways.
All of these communities are subsidizing Sterling economically. After all, Sterling is the economic hub of the area, thanks to all of the surrounding towns.
Last year, Sterling’s 1 percent municipal sales tax brought in $3.5 million to the city of Sterling’s coffers. That figures out to $225 per Sterling resident.
All of the other towns lag far behind Sterling in sales tax revenue – Rock Falls ($114 per person), Morrison ($102), Mount Carroll ($122) and Prophetstown ($73).
Are residents of those towns that much more conservative with their spending? Of course not. They’re going to towns with more retail, and Sterling is the best place for shopping in the Sauk Valley.
If government entities broke up every time economic self-interest called, the result would be chaotic. In such a scenario, rich Connecticut would want to break from a union in which it ends up subsidizing poor states such as Mississippi. And the retail-rich east side of Sterling would seek to break off from the lower-income west side.
Fortunately, that’s not the way the world works.
So is it a bad thing that Sterling effectively subsidizes other towns through the special-needs cooperative? It depends on how you look at it.
David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525.