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Larry Lough

Second Opinion: Good decisions begin with good information

“Trust but verify” is a Reaganism that should serve individuals as well as superpowers armed with nuclear weapons.

People generally can trust their government, and they usually can depend on the media (despite a long-standing political strategy designed to make you think otherwise). Most – though not all – of those folks involved in both work on behalf of the public interest.

But such trust should be tempered with skepticism, and it should be questioned and challenged regularly.

People should consider many sources of information, and different points of view, in determining what’s best for them.

How do they do that?

Three words: Knowledge is power.

PUBLIC ACCESS LAWS are designed to put information – power – in the hands of the people. That’s you.

Those statutes give you a legal right to attend meetings of government bodies and inspect records kept by government offices.

If you don’t trust politicians to give it to you straight, and you don’t believe the news media will protect your interests ... well, you can do it yourself.

Although news reporters regularly use Illinois’ Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, those are called public access laws for a reason.

Journalists have no more rights to attend meetings and inspect records than you do.

You should take a personal interest in making sure your rights in that regard are protected – and expanded.

AMONG BILLS FILED in the current Illinois Legislature are two that could affect your access to government information.

One, House Bill 4268, would require public bodies to have a hearing on public employee contracts before approving them.

The other, Senate Bill 3072, would block the public – and the press – from getting access to 911 recordings.

Both are issues with a history in the Sauk Valley.

THIS NEWSPAPER has, during this editor’s tenure, been pretty aggressive in pushing government bodies to release publicly – before voting to approve – tentative contracts with their employees.

We objected loudly in 2009 when the Sterling City Council withheld details of a renegotiated contract with firefighters. Both sides refused to release their agreement after negotiations ended on the Friday before Labor Day.

When city council members voted on the deal the following Tuesday, they did so without telling the public what was in the contract revisions. In fact, no one said a word when the mayor asked for “discussion” before the vote to approve.

In 2012, the Sterling School Board voted on a new contract with teachers. The meeting agenda called it “a two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Sterling Education Association.”

But the superintendent refused to make the contract public – even the day after it was approved – calling it “a preliminary first draft” of a contact. But the board never took another vote once a final contract was drafted. It was made public a couple of weeks later.

That kind of nonsense will stop if House Bill 4268 becomes law.

It would require, before any such contract was approved, a government entity to publish the agreement on its website and, within 14 days of posting it, conduct a public meeting to discuss the negotiated deal.

Why should you care? Because the largest part of your property tax dollar goes to support your local public school district. And the largest part of its budget is used for the pay and benefits of teachers as provided in that contract.

Maybe some people don’t mind being told that how their tax dollars are spent is none of their business.

Maybe they should.

THIS COMMUNITY has had a healthy discussion in recent weeks about a 911 recording that this newspaper obtained from state police under the Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.

That recording revealed the conversations in November that a state police dispatcher had with motorists who reported a man in distress lying along Interstate 88.

Although at least three drivers told the dispatcher the mile-marker near to where the man lay, waving for help, police couldn’t find him. He froze to death overnight.

The recording raised many questions for people who read the transcripts in the newspaper: Did police try hard enough to find the man? Was police procedure adequate to address the situation? Was it followed? Why didn’t the dispatcher tell one of the callers to stay at the scene to show police where to find him?

That is the value of making 911 recordings accessible: They allow the public – and the press – to monitor the performance of public safety forces in their official duties.

SB 3072 would deprive the public of those recordings, which are government records relating to how effectively public employees are serving the community.

Maybe some people think the performance of police and fire departments is none of the public’s business.

But we suspect that most of the public is keenly interested in the subject. Or they should be.

WHO DO YOU trust to look out for your interests?

If you believe the only person you can really trust is yourself, you ought to be interested in having the information you need to make intelligent decisions on matters that affect your life and that of your family and neighbors.

That includes the decisions you make about who you elect to public office.

Information obtained from public access laws – whether school budgets or police activity logs – can help you to make those decisions.

Twentieth century philosopher John Dewey observed that it’s difficult to interest the public in the public interest.

It shouldn’t be.

Knowledge is power.