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Time to testify: Nothing but the truth

Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

During a recent committee hearing in the Illinois House of Representatives, this editor testified on behalf of a bill to ensure more open government.

The invitation to testify came from Rep. Jeanne Ives, who had learned of this newspaper’s advocacy for the release of public employee contracts before they are approved by local government bodies.

We have written before about her legislation, most recently House Bill 4268, which would require such contracts to be made public for 14 days before a vote is taken – and then only after a public hearing is conducted on the agreement.

This is the kind of legislation that helps us to identify the people who think government is none of the public’s business.

STATE REP. IVES IS a Republican from Wheaton who was elected to the Legislature in November 2012.

More than 3 years earlier, this newspaper started its informal campaign to open the approval process for public employee contracts.

Our trail of news coverage and editorials started with the renegotiation of Sterling’s contract with firefighters in 2009. City official denied the public any information about the contract before it was approved.

Then it was the Sterling School Board’s bizarre approval of a non-existent contract with teachers in 2012. On the night the board approved a contract that hadn’t yet been written, a list of key contract terms was released.

In early 2013, after a 9-day strike by teachers, the Dixon School Board agreed to a contract with its professional staff. The contract was made publicly available the day before it was approved.

And later that year, Dixon City Council approved a new contract with police and firefighters. That contract was open for public inspection a full 2 weeks before the council’s vote.

The good news is, the process has evolved during those 4 years to include the public a little more each time.

We hope the trend continues.

IN THAT HEARING ON Feb. 26 at the Capitol, this editor told members of the State Government Administration Committee that HB 4268 was needed for two reasons:

1) To clarify state law as to when public release is required for a governing body’s negotiated labor agreement with an employees union. Because the statute is vague, local officials – usually at the behest of union leaders – often withhold public access until the approval process is complete.

2) To make taxpaying citizens a party to the approval process of a public contract that, ultimately, they are going to have to pay for. They should be involved in any government plan to spend their money.

What HB 4268 will not do, the committee was told, is to interfere with or otherwise compromise the integrity of the negotiating process. No release of information would be required until collective bargaining had produced an agreement.

Who could possibly be against such a public-friendly proposal?

Only the people who don’t want the public to know anything until it’s too late to do something about it.

LET’S UNDERSTAND, first of all, that it is not the job of public employee unions to look out for the public interest.

Their job is to protect the interests of their members.

At the Feb. 26 legislative hearing, two union lobbyists showed up to testify against HB 4268: One from the AFL-CIO, the other from the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Their argument was this:

1) If taxpayers want to be involved, they should advise their governing body before and during negotiations as to what is and is not acceptable in a contract. Once a tentative agreement is reached, it’s too late because ... well, it just is.

2) If taxpayers don’t like a contract that’s approved by a governing body, they should defeat members of that body in the next election – “ballot accountability,” one lobbyist called.

Of course, that’s an argument for not tellling the public about anything a governing body is considering until after it’s approved.

So why even allow the public to attend government meetings?

PUBLIC POLICY ON open government was established by the Legislature in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees. ...

“Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.

“The General Assembly hereby declares ... that access by all persons to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government. It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible. ...”

That seems pretty clear.

HOUSE BILL 4268 failed to get out of committee. It was pretty obvious that several members in the Democratic majority had pledged their vote to the unions’ cause.

Chairman Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, said he liked the concept but wanted to broaden the scope of the bill to include contracts other than those with public employees.

That’s a good idea – even if it delays amending the law to ensure greater transparency.

We will keep an eye on this legislation to let you know how it evolves.

Just part of our ongoing campaign.

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