By Michael Miner

Who Wants to Know?

When the attorney general promises “fast action” on a problem Illinois “better do something about”–well, shouldn’t the public know what he’s getting ready to tackle?

And when he’s agitated because all around the state the law is being flouted and the flouters are on the public payroll–isn’t this the kind of news the press has got to cover?

Maybe, maybe not. Jim Ryan’s pledge last month made headlines across Illinois, but not in the Tribune or Sun-Times. He was reacting to an extraordinary investigation that saw 14 Illinois newspapers–though none based in downtown Chicago–test the willingness of public officials to turn over public documents. Reporters visited public offices in every one of the state’s 102 counties, and the results, published in late July, were appalling.

The survey found violators everywhere. “Nearly two-thirds of the time,” reported the AP’s Christopher Wills, “people requesting public documents from local offices left empty-handed. More than one-quarter of the requests were never honored, even after allowing officials time to seek legal advice or compile the records. And the people seeking information were not simply turned away. They often were interrogated about who they were and why they wanted the information. Clerks laughed at the requests or simply pretended the person did not exist. A Moultrie County deputy pulled one person over and delivered a lecture on proper small-town behavior. A Savanna school employee took down the license plate number. The Edwards County sheriff wadded up a copy of state law and said, ‘I don’t have to tell you nothing.'”

The Tribune and Sun-Times ignored the investigation, so it stands to reason they’d ignore Ryan’s reaction too. Other papers in this area weren’t so aloof. The Daily Herald helped with the study, and it, the Daily Southtown, and the Copley chain of suburban papers all reported on it.

Journalism pays solemn lip service to the public’s right to know, but a free press isn’t legally obliged to tell the public anything. Government is another matter. “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.” So says the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, but it makes no provision for punishing violators.

A year ago Susan Duncan, managing editor of the Effingham Daily News, suggested that the Associated Press Editors Association in Illinois find out where the act stood in the state. In Indiana, as Duncan knew, a 1997 survey by seven papers had established that the Freedom of Information laws of that state were routinely violated. By May of ’98 a task force appointed by the governor had conducted public hearings, and reform bills had been written, passed, and signed into law. Should Illinois follow Indiana’s example? “I certainly thought it was worthwhile to explore,” says Duncan, a former president of the APEA board. “One of the fundamental things we should do is make certain those types of principles are being adhered to.”

The popular image of the American daily newspaper these days is of a cash cow being milked for every last nickel by profitmongers beholden to faceless stockholders. Against that, set Duncan’s proposition–which united papers from Effingham, Belleville, Bloomington, Champaign, Decatur, Galesburg, La Salle, Mount Vernon, Peoria, Rock Island, Carbondale, Springfield, Sterling, and Arlington Heights.

After hearing Duncan’s pitch, the APEA board invited an editor who’d led the Indiana project to describe how it had been done. The board decided to do an Illinois survey but differently: the AP would oversee the survey and offer a package of stories on its wire to every AP paper in the state. Of the papers represented on the APEA board, all but the Chicago Tribune contributed reporters. Where there were gaps in the coverage the AP recruited other papers, and it also assigned some of its own reporters. Dana Heupel, statehouse editor of Springfield’s State Journal-Register, became the project coordinator, dividing up the 102 counties among 56 reporters, drafting the questions they’d ask and the forms they’d fill out, and creating a data bank for the results.

The reporters were in the field the last two weeks of April. “They visited the county clerk, jail, city clerk of the largest city and superintendent of the largest school district,” Wills would write. “They asked for a relatively obscure item–a list of all public documents maintained by the various offices–and such routine documents as a log of prisoners, travel vouchers and city council minutes.

“They were told not to give their names or identify themselves as reporters if at all possible. But about half the time, the reporters were asked why they wanted the information and had to reveal their names. They had to file written Freedom of Information requests in order to get more than one-third of the documents.

“The reporters’ reluctance to reveal their names puzzled and even scared some clerks. Several called the police to complain.”

The reporters made a total of 605 visits to public offices, and in 354 of them they had to break out a copy of the Freedom of Information Act and point out where it said that they had a right to the requested document. “Ignorance of the law,” wrote Wills, “often seemed to be as much a problem as hostility toward it.”

“Some people tried to the best of their ability,” says Duncan, “but may not have been able to come up with what they should have given us. Others were very much defiant. They did not think it was our business.”

The Freedom of Information Act was written for the little guy. That’s why the reporters kept their press credentials to themselves; in Duncan’s words, they wanted to see “if John Q. Public can get the information he’s entitled to.” When the clerk on the other side of the counter demanded, Who are you and why do you want this? they replied that Illinois law didn’t require them to say. If the clerk said beat it, they identified themselves as reporters. “But that was a last resort,” says Duncan. “Obviously the media will sometimes get access because of who we are.”

Is that because public officials consider the media more entitled than average folk or because reporters don’t give up and go away? “If I had my guess I would say it’s the latter,” says Duncan. “They certainly think the media will have more persistence.”

In 1983 Illinois became the last state to pass a Freedom of Information act, and because its law, unlike similiar laws in some other states, doesn’t allow for fines or incarceration, nothing much besides conscience compels public servants to cooperate with John Q. Public. State representative Barbara Flynn Currie, one of the act’s authors, has suggested a modest reform: she told the AP that perhaps someone who has to go to court to see a public document should be guaranteed attorney fees and court costs. Attorney General Ryan was much more assertive.

“If you have met this kind of resistance to compliance and it’s statewide,” he told the AP, “we’ve got a problem and we better do something about it, and I will. I will promise you fast action, quick action on this, and I am willing to consider anything that is reasonable.” Ignorance of the law is no excuse, he said, not after the public officials were given a chance to read the law they were violating.

“If they didn’t follow the law then,” he said, “there is no explanation…no reasonable explanation, other than the fact they didn’t want to comply. And that’s disturbing.”

Our own local governments didn’t distinguish themselves. A reporter had no trouble picking up Chicago City Council minutes, but when she asked for a master list of city records she was given a street guide. Another reporter had to file a FOIA request to see the names of inmates being held for trial at Cook County Jail and was told that if he wanted to copy the list it would cost him $1 a page. Requests for a master list of Cook County records, for a master list of Chicago school district records, and for the Chicago school chief’s travel vouchers were either denied or ignored.

The Cook County surveying was done by two reporters from the Daily Herald, Renee Trappe and Tim Broderick. The Tribune representative on the APEA board, suburban editor Kerry Luft, attended the planning sessions, but kept his paper on the sidelines. I asked him why, and he replied, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

For Your Information

In hoarding information the people have a right to, Illinois runs with the pack. “Illinois now joins Indiana, Virginia, Connecti-cut, Rhode Island, and North Carolina on the list of states that have been subjected to freedom-of-information audits–and failed,” Editor & Publisher commented in an editorial this month. “Unfortunate-ly, the only real difference between these six states and the other 44 is the fact that the former have been audited and the latter have not: The results are likely to be similar across the nation.”

If that’s true, and Editor & Publisher should know, the point of the surveys is to create the embarrassment that precedes reform. Editor & Publisher noted that in Indiana, Governor Frank O’Bannon responded to his state’s dismal showing by naming a “public access counselor” and ordering state agencies to obey open-records laws.

The governor of Illinois may not be so easily embarrassed. According to Peoria’s Journal Star, George Ryan was asked what he made of the newspapers’ FOIA study and replied that he wasn’t familiar with it. (Maybe he only reads the Chicago Tribune.) Then he was asked if he’d support an open-records law with some teeth in it. “That’s too hypothetical,” he answered.

The Journal Star refused to put up with this. Last week it published a mocking editorial in the form of an open letter. It accused the governor of dodging the issue and concluded: “What isn’t hypothetical is the citizen’s right and obligation to be informed. That’s fundamental, and that’s where the Freedom of Information Act comes in. It’s a big state, governor, and there is a lot for ordinary citizens to know. They deserve more cooperation from government officials when they try to find out.”

As for the “fast action, quick action” Jim Ryan promised, Sean Denney of the attorney general’s office is now reviewing FOIA laws in other states with an eye to rewriting Illinois’. “One area that’s an obvious possibility is the enforcement end of the law,” says a spokesman for Ryan. “Right now there’s no public enforcement in the act, so if somebody believes government is not responding properly their only alternative is to file a lawsuit on their own. Unlike the Open Meetings Act, where the state’s attorney or attorney general is able to file civil lawsuits to enforce the act, the FOI Act has no such provision.”

Another interested party is the Illinois Press Association, which is used to complaining about the Freedom of Information Act and being ignored. “The General Assembly never wanted to deal with it,” says Beth Bennett, the IPA’s government affairs manager. “Now that it’s getting some attention, this might be the time for the General Assembly to take a serious look at freedom of information.”

She says she expects to collaborate with Denney and Ryan on new FOIA legislation. “Their office is a real pleasure to work with,” she says. “That’s what makes the timing on this really positive. We have an attorney general who really believes in it.”