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Out Here: No need for bureaucratic middleman

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

It took years, but government is finally becoming more transparent, thanks to a nonprofit group.

The other day, a story from July 2008 caught my eye. Sauk Valley Media was trying to get the salary for then-Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer.

The reporter called the county administrator’s secretary, who was reluctant to provide the information. The secretary asked for a Freedom of Information Act request before disclosing the figure.

These days, you don’t need to go through any bureaucrat to get such information. For that, give credit to For the Good of Illinois, a nonprofit group that tracks salaries for government entities across the state.

Its website is at openthebooks.com. After a few clicks on the site, you’ll have to register. But it costs nothing, although the group accepts donations.

I checked Spencer’s salary on the openthebooks.com and found that he made $167,467 in 2012, his last full year as state’s attorney. I got that information without pleading for it from anyone in county government.

For the Good of Illinois has a relatively efficient way to obtain information on salaries from the thousands of government units in Illinois. It gets the information from the pension funds, which maintain internal databases.

Can you imagine if For the Good had to issue a FOIA request to every single local entity?

Last year, I wanted to know the salary for Sterling Township’s then-road commissioner, Jim Lopez. For some reason, it wasn’t on openthebooks.com.

Township Supervisor Matt Howze declined to answer, even though he was considered the treasurer for the township road district.

Such questions, he told me, should go to Lopez.

“It’s professional courtesy,” he said. 

Wait, I protested; this is public record.

Howze then told me to look at the township’s budget at the county courthouse. So I did. Unfortunately, that document included total salaries in each township fund, not salaries for specific employees.

Howze’s other tip: File a FOIA request.

We then sought the entire list of employees and their salaries. We got Lopez’s salary from the budget – $44,000.

But the list of employees and their salaries left a lot to be desired. It included employees in three categories – less than $15,000, more than $15,000 but less than $30,000, and more than $30,000. No specific amounts.

Some employees were listed in two categories. That, Howze explained, was because they were paid from more than one fund.

That was a frustrating endeavor, but I’m paid to seek information. Do you have the time to endure such unnecessary hassles?

For the Good of Illinois decided it shouldn’t be that hard, so it took the matter into its own hands. While I’m grateful for this group, it shouldn’t be left to a nonprofit to provide information that should already be easily available.

To its credit, the state maintains an online database for state-level employees’ salaries, and it has been helpful.

Why not extend this database to all public workers?

David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 525.

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