Geoff Ritter: Questioning your government is easier than ever
Mar 20, 2017 11:43 AM -
You have a right to know. Plain and simple. That's the foundational message at the center of Sunshine Week, which is brought to us each year by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. While those organizations obviously serve the broader interests of journalists in America, the clear message is this: Anyone in Benton, or Illinois, or the United States at large has the right to obtain information about the inner workings of the government. Anyone. Many citizens might be inclined to think filing a Freedom of Information Act request is a highly technical, almost lawyerly process. It's not. A one-sentence request sent by email to a governing body's FOIA officer is typically enough to do the trick. In Benton, that's City Clerk Brook Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a question about county government? The Franklin County website lists a host of FOIA officers representing a number of county departments. It really only takes one sentence. After that, you might be amazed at the amount of information that is accessible to you. "All records in the custody or possession of a public body," the Illinois Freedom of Information Act states, "are presumed to be open to inspection or copying. Any public body that asserts that a record is exempt from disclosure has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that it is exempt." To rephrase, all government records are presumably accessible to you. To deny a record, the responding government must demonstrate that it falls under a set of exemptions clearly defined by the law, many of which are reasonable. In my personal experience filing records requests in cities around Southern Illinois, however, public bodies often will deny a request using the thinnest thread to cite it as exempt. These can be appealed to the Illinois Attorney General's almost as easily as the initial request was made -- and often, the AG will rule in your favor. Benton has been forthcoming in response to the requests I have submitted, but there is always room for improvement. Finding the name of the FOIA officer on the city's website -- something mandated by law to appear there -- can be done, but it's not easy. Looking for a schedule of meetings for the city's boards and commissions? It's nowhere to be found. On the other hand, citizens can easily access searchable minutes from recent city council meetings and access agendas for upcoming meetings. This is valuable, and required, information. At a time when governmental bodies are facing unprecedented public skepticism, the case for open public information couldn't be clearer. News organizations submit the vast majority of records requests, but the process is so simple, even a child can do it -- and indeed, there is nothing in the law preventing a child from doing just that. In the end, you have a right to know what your government is doing. It has an obligation to tell you.