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Open government survey: Can we see your budget?

Rock Falls High, Sterling Township put up barriers

Earlier this week, the Rock Falls High School district asked a Sauk Valley Media reporter to show his credentials when he asked to see the district’s annual budget. Then he was asked to show his driver’s license.

Other local entities didn’t make getting their budgets quite so hard.

To mark Sunshine Week, Sauk Valley Media’s reporters went to a number of agencies and posed a simple question: May we see your annual budget?

Sunshine Week, which is spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, is designed to promote the importance of open government.

Unless asked to do so, the reporters didn’t identify themselves. This was so that reporters could understand the experience of an average citizen requesting to see such information.

At Rock Falls High School, the reporter was immediately asked why he wanted to see the budget. After saying it was being requested because it was a public document, the reporter was asked who he was.

“A local resident?” one district employee asked.

After saying that he was a reporter with Sauk Valley Media, he was asked to show his credentials. A copy of his business card was made, and then a district employee asked to see a driver’s license to check the name.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act does not require proof of identify to obtain a public record.

While the reporter waited for a copy of the budget to be made available, district employees told the reporter that a copy of the budget was on the school’s website and asked whether the reporter had checked for it there.

About 15 minutes after the reporter arrived at the district’s office, an employee brought out the “office copy” of the budget and told the reporter that if he wanted a copy of the budget or individual pages, he must file a Freedom of Information Act request.

In contrast, the Rock Falls Elementary School district did not require a written request or identification. In fact, Superintendent Dan Arickx never asked who the reporter was or why he wanted to see a copy of the budget.

Arickx directed the reporter to check the district’s website and even wrote directions for how to get to the budget online. He asked the reporter whether he had access to the Internet while trying to explain the easiest way to see the budget.

When pressed on whether a physical copy of the budget could be seen, Arickx said no FOIA request would be needed and he needed only some time to print the large document.

Rock Falls High School and Sterling Township were the only agencies that asked reporters why they wanted to see their budgets. The Illinois attorney general’s office says public bodies are not allowed to ask people why they want to see documents. They can ask only whether requests are for commercial purposes – for instance, the sale of public records.

For Sunshine Week in 2011, Sauk Valley Media discovered through a survey of government entities that when it comes to getting public records, a typical citizen sometimes has a tougher time than a newspaper reporter.

For this year’s survey, Sauk Valley Media targeted local government entities that might not undergo as much public scrutiny as some of those surveyed in 2011. To that end, the newspaper did not include county governments or city halls in Rock Falls, Sterling and Dixon.

“I think budgets should be posted online to make it super-easy to see them,” said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. “In absence of posting them online, there shouldn’t be any barriers to seeing the budget.”

Susan Garrett, chairman of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, agreed.

“It shouldn’t be a complicated process for people to receive budgetary information,” said Garrett, a former state senator from the suburbs. “Tax dollars support these budgets.”

Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said agencies with small staffs can find it harder to immediately produce their budgets, given their varied duties.

“Many times, the folks who work in these offices are very accommodating,” the lawyer said. “Legally, they can make someone file a Freedom of Information Act request and send it to you in 5 days. But that’s more work for them. It very well might be easier for them to dig out the document.”

Here’s what happened with this year’s survey at various government offices:

Sterling Township – On Tuesday, the reporter entered a room occupied by about 10 women having lunch, and asked with whom he should speak to see the budget. One woman, just finishing assembling her plate, reluctantly said, “That would be me.”

After being asked by other people in the room who he was, where he was from and what he needed it for, the reporter was asked to give his email address. The woman said she would email the reporter and said, “We’ll figure out how to get you what you need,” but another woman interrupted and said that would require a FOIA request.

– Christopher Heimerman

• Dixon school district – The Dixon school district gets a big fat A+ – it has a copy or two of its current budget out for anyone to see, sitting on a table in the office waiting area.

– Kathleen A. Schultz

• Dixon Rural Fire Department – When asked for the annual budget, a woman behind a glass window said, “Let me go grab that.” The reporter was then invited into the department’s meeting room.

Fire Chief Norris Tucker, recognizing the reporter, pulled the budget, only about 20 pages, from the bulletin board. He said he was available if the reporter had any questions.

– David Giuliani

• CGH Medical Center – The hospital is owned by Sterling city government, but it keeps its own budget. A reporter went to CGH’s fourth floor, where administration is housed. He asked the receptionist whether he could see the budget.

Hospital CEO Paul Steinke, who was in the room, said he saw no problem with that, saying the hospital had nothing to hide.

After Steinke left the room, the receptionist tried to figure out exactly which document the reporter wanted. She phoned another employee in the hospital. After she got off the phone, the receptionist said the other employee would email the budget to her. The reporter gave the receptionist his phone number. She emailed it to the reporter shortly afterward, but it was only a 1-page summary.

In a reply email, the reporter asked whether he could see the budget with all of the line items. The receptionist said she would check with the other employee and “see what I can do.”

The next day, the hospital emailed the entire budget.

– David Giuliani

• Sauk Valley Community College – The reporter walked into the business office and asked a woman employee how one could go get a quick look at the budget.

Another woman, about 15 feet away, told the reporter that because it was a matter of public information, the budget was available online. The college also had a hard copy in a file cabinet, which she handed over without question.

– Christi Warren

• City of Amboy – The city clerk wasn’t available, but after the reporter left an email address, a copy of the budget was emailed to Sauk Valley Media without asking why or asking for a written request.

– Matt Mencarini

• City of Polo – The reporter, who was not asked to identify herself, asked for a copy of the last approved budget and was told a Freedom of Information request must be made. The new city budget will be passed soon, and the city clerk quickly offered to email the reporter a copy of the new budget and gave her a business card.

– Pam Eggemeier

• Amboy school district – Without asking why or who wanted to see a copy, a district official retrieved an office copy of the budget.

– Matt Mencarini

• Sterling school district – The school district was ready to print a copy of the budget without asking for a written request or why it was being requested. A copy of the budget was emailed instead, in an effort to make it easier.

– Matt Mencarini

• Morrison Community Hospital – The reporter asked an employee at the front desk to see a copy of the budget. After she made a phone call to another employee, a copy was given to the reporter in less than 5 minutes. The employee even gave the name of the hospital’s comptroller for any additional questions.

The reporter was never asked why he wanted to see it or who he was.

– Matt Mencarini

• City of Morrison – A city employee printed a copy of the budget without asking why it was being requested or who was asking to see a copy.

– Matt Mencarini

• Morrison school district – District employees emphasized that a copy of the budget was available on its website, but agreed to print a copy without asking for a written request or who was requesting it or why it was being requested.

– Matt Mencarini

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