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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Local government spending could soon be easier for Illinois taxpayers to track

Their View

By Ben Szalinski, Illinois Policy Institute | Feb 25, 2020

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Taxpayers would be able to see a decade’s worth of local government records with a click on their home computers if a bill introduced in the Illinois Senate becomes law.

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, filed Senate Bill 3170 that would amend the Open Meetings Act to bring more transparency to local government. Under the proposal, units of local government, including school districts, with a population of more than 25,000, or that operate a website will need to post local records online and keep them there for 10 years.

The bill does provide some exceptions, such as school districts controlled by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Information posted by units of local government will also be uploaded to the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal. The goal is to allow residents to see what government leaders are doing and how tax dollars are spent.

Last year, a similar measured filed in the Illinois House by state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, was unanimously passed out of committee. It was then reassigned to the House Rules Committee, where it died.

A 2016 Gallup poll found Illinoisans have the lowest confidence of any state in their government. Recent corruption investigations have further eroded public trust.

During the past year, Illinoisans have watched three state lawmakers resign amid corruption probes.

Local government leaders have also given voters reason to worry. Many of the same investigations that rolled up state lawmakers hit mayors and other public servants. A series of raids in September 2019 targeted village offices in Lyons, Summit and McCook as part of a probe into red-light cameras, which over a decade took in $1 billion in Illinois.

In October Lake Forest’s long-serving city manager was indicted on a charge of official misconduct for steering $200,000 to a lobbying firm in an effort to get an Amtrak stop in the city. Bob Kiely earned $250,000 the year before he retired, making him Illinois’ second-highest paid city manager.

On Feb. 14, Patrick Doherty, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, was charged with three counts of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery for his role in the red-light camera scandal. Tobolski also serves as mayor of McCook.

Giving taxpayers greater access to public records might expose more wrong-doing, or it might make dishonest public servants think twice about what they are doing. Even honest government can benefit from public scrutiny and input.

State lawmakers should support legislation that makes government more transparent, and makes fuller use of the websites nearly every local government maintains.

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