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Second Opinion: For the record, we’ll do what we have to

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 12:50 p.m. CDT

As you might imagine, newspaper reporters and editors ask lots of questions.

But that isn’t always enough to get the answers we need.

Sometimes, we have to get our hands on public records to supplement information from human sources.

And no matter how nicely we ask, government employees are not always willing to hand over public documents.

So we turn to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act – FOIA.

And we file a formal request.

PUBLIC RECORDS have some advantages over human sources.

People sometimes have bad memories, but public records never forget.

Official documents don’t lie or stonewall. Can’t say the same for people.

And if we end up reporting false information that damages someone, sourcing from a public record gives a newspaper some legal cover that a human interview does not.

Public records are our friends.

YOU OFTEN READ in this newspaper about requests for records that we file under the state’s FOIA.

Seems as though we’re seeking public records – through the formal method – several times each month.

The law is clear that public agencies may grant an oral request for their documents, but sometimes they like to have it in writing.

That’s fine. It’s only a little more trouble than asking, and we’re accustomed to filing formal requests.

Officials have different reasons for wanting a written request.

A county clerk once required it before she would release the voter registration card of a friend. We had asked for that record because the friend was a political candidate who would not tell us her age, a detail we always report in candidate profiles. Voting records have that information.

Such written requests also require public agencies to put their denials in writing, with specific references to the part of the law that justifies their denials.

So we’re happy to put it in writing if that’s what it takes.

READERS MIGHT have noticed several recent stories that involved our seeking public records.

The mysterious death along Interstate 88 and the state police “search” after a couple of motorists alerted them to a man in distress – 12 hours before his body was discovered.

The numerous credit card expenditures of the Ogle County sheriff, who spent thousands of dollars at local restaurants for “training.”

The mathematically challenged financial reports of the Coloma Township office.

The reporting for those stories involved talking to a number of people.

But public records often tell a more revealing story.

THOSE STORIES ARE far from over.

The sheriff will seek re-election next year, and during the campaign his opponents might happen to mention the meals, the clothes, and other expenses that voters could object to paying for.

We still have a lot of questions about the death and whether it could have been prevented had the man received timely medical attention.

And Coloma Township taxpayers have to be concerned about paying fines for the failure of their elected officials to file accurate reports on time.

Each story involves the performance of people who work for the public.

We all have a right to know whether their actions on behalf of taxpayers are proper and appropriate.

Public records will help us to find the answers that will tell those stories.

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