SPRINGFIELD - Illinois government agencies should be fined up to $1,000 each time they refuse to allow citizens to view basic public records, the state attorney general says.
Calling for increased transparency in state and local government, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told state lawmakers Wednesday that reforms are needed so agencies don't shirk their responsibilities under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Speaking to the recently-formed Joint Committee on Government Reform, the Democratic attorney general said ethics reforms in the Land of Lincoln are well overdue, following the ouster of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose administration routinely denied media and citizens' requests for basic public documents.
"I'm very hopeful it will get done this session," Madigan said. "I certainly think the climate is such that we have a unique opportunity to put some real changes in place for our sunshine laws."
Madigan told the committee, which is co-chaired by her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, that the disgraced former governor's secrecy "enabled his abuse of power and, at worst, enabled him to break the law."
The former governor was arrested in December for using his office to seek personal and political favors, including campaign contributions. The two-term Democrat was also accused of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
Blagojevich, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, was ousted from office by state lawmakers.
Among groups supportive of Madigan's proposal is the Illinois Press Association. The group's executive director, David Bennett, told the Joint Committee on Government Reform that the state's Freedom of Information Act is "a toothless tiger" that needs to be amended.
"People ignore it routinely and will continue to ignore it unless there are proper penalties built into the law," Bennett said.
Open government advocate David Morrison said that the "time is ripe" for lawmakers to revise the state's open records law.
The question he asked, however, is whether lawmakers are willing to change the climate in which Blagojevich thrived in Springfield.
Morrison, deputy executive director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said FOIA requests are routinely ignored by state and local agencies, noting that his office is still waiting for responses from public records requests his organization filed in August.
"The seven-day disclosure calendar has blown by and we're still waiting," he said, adding that in many instances local governments hide behind the state's open records law.
"The problem is they now ignore FOIA," Morrison said. "The law is being observed less and less, especially by local governments."