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Local Editorials

SVM EDITORIAL: Madigan helped further the cause of government transparency

Governmental records and meetings are more transparent because of the efforts of outgoing Attorney General Lisa Madigan. We salute her work to further the cause of public access. We expect Illinois hasn’t heard the last of her.

Lisa Madigan
Lisa Madigan

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has made government openness and transparency one of her key projects.

We fervently hope this important cause does not suffer from lack of attention by her successor, whomever that person might be, when Madigan leaves office in January 2019 at the end of her fourth term.

Madigan, 51, a Chicago Democrat and daughter of powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, has announced she won’t run for re-election in 2018.

Already, potential successors have thrown their hats in the ring.

Among the candidates we are aware of are Republican Erika Harold of Urbana, and on the Democratic side, state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago and state Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood. Other hopefuls are likely waiting in the wings.

What did Madigan do to promote open meetings and open records?

Quite a lot.

It was Madigan and her office who first created the Public Access Counselor’s position, which later became codified into law during reforms that followed Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment and conviction.

The strengthened Public Access Counselor post, which has been around for more than 7 years, has helped thousands of people to obtain information from their government, according to Madigan’s annual Sunshine Week report issued in March.

Last year, for example, the Public Access Counselor received more than 4,700 requests for assistance.

Here’s a breakdown of Freedom of Information Act requests: 4,354 total requests, with 3,640 from members of the public, 681 from news media or other organizations, and 33 from public bodies.

Here’s a breakdown of requests regarding the Open Meetings Act: 366 total requests, with 297 from members of the public, 66 from news media or other organizations, and three from public bodies.

The Public Access Counselor not only makes determinations on what the law requires a public body to do, but it can issue binding opinions that a public body must follow.

Last year, 15 binding opinions were issued, which dealt with barriers to obtaining records or attending public meetings. Over 7 years, the grand total of binding opinions has reached 90.

One of the binding opinions determined that public employees must divulge emails on their personal accounts if the emails pertain to the transaction of public business. Some public employees, you see, hope to hide such communications from the people by using non-public email accounts.

Significantly, the Public Access Counselor works informally on a number of cases to resolve disputes regarding release of documents and access to government meetings without the need of a formal appeal. In 2016, more than 1,270 such matters were brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

We appreciate the fact that, under Madigan, the Public Access Counselor’s office has developed such a reputation such that governmental units are willing to relent and release information that they previously held close to the vest, without putting up a huge fight before doing so.

Further, the Public Access Bureau has committed to educating members of the public, the media, and government officials about their rights and responsibilities regarding open meetings and public records. Last year, 15 training sessions were held across the state.

So when we say that, with Lisa Madigan in charge, the Attorney General’s Office has vigorously promoted government openness and transparency, we mean it.

Madigan doesn’t appear to have been tainted by the ill feelings that some Illinoisans have for her father, the longest-serving speaker of a state House of Representatives in U.S. history.

At age 51, Madigan has several more chapters in her life. Whether she will turn to public service once more after her attorney general stint is over is anyone’s guess.

But it’s likely that Illinois hasn’t heard the last of her.

As far as her successor is concerned, that person should pledge up front to continue empowering the people of Illinois by continuing to promote greater governmental transparency.

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