Come New Year's Day, I'm going to be on the prowl for those vague meeting agendas that journalists and watchdogs "love" so much.
As I wrote in today's paper, an improvement to the Illinois Open Meetings Act kicks in next Tuesday that aims to make government meeting agendas actually reflect what will be voted on. In short, an agenda item that describes a vote to give public employees a 4 percent raise as "personnel issues" might not cut the mustard anymore.
Notice that I said "might." That's because the new requirement, which was weakened to overcome the braying of local governments that see any improvement to sunshine laws as The End of The World As We Know It – sorry, As They Know It – is somewhat ambiguous.
The new language requires agendas for the state's 7,000 units of government to disclose the "general subject matter" of any item up for final action. Republican Rep. Sandra Pihos, who sponsored the legislation, called it a "step in the right direction."
But it's a smaller step in the right direction – the original version of her bill required meeting agendas to be "sufficiently descriptive". And of course, on cue, the Springfield lobbyists representing our city councils, school boards and other governments freaked.
The Illinois Municipal League called the idea a "litigation minefield" that would expose any government to litigation depending on an individual's definition of sufficiently descriptive. The fact that the league actually had a valid point is somewhat neutralized in my eyes by the fact that we've heard this tired refrain before – this was the same lobbying group that objected in 2009 to strengthening the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that governments would actually have to – get this – lay off first responders in order to pay for FOIA attorneys.
(While I'm waxing nostalgic, do you know what pays for these government lobbyists to scream Mayan December Doomsday Apocalypse whenever a lawmaker wants to strengthen your right to know? Why, your property tax dollars!)
So now we have language requiring agendas to lay out the "general subject matter" of items coming up for a vote. And it's up to our local governments to decide on that definition. With few exceptions, I see them erring on the side of general as possible – that's just the way our governments interpret sunshine laws.
Let's look at the two examples I cited in my Wednesday story.
The McHenry County College Board could argue that "resolution to make offer" is a legally adequate description of their vote to spend $750,000 on land for future expansion. Ditto for the Lakemoor Village Board – its members undoubtedly know what "ordinance 10-O-22" is. Could they argue that it's up to the taxpayers to look it up for themselves?
As I blogged here, a taxing body the way things are now could describe votes to approve a tax increase, staff raises and a golden-parachute superintendent contract on an agenda as "budget," "personnel" and "action from executive session." Under the new language taking effect next week, a secrecy-loving taxing body could argue that such definitions pass muster under the new law.
What's going to have to happen is that the Public Access Counselor will have to weigh in with a binding opinion setting some minimum definition of adequate description. And that's where you and I come in.
The next time one of those non-agenda agendas crosses our desks at the Northwest Herald, we plan to file a request for review with the counselor, who has the power to enforce the Open Meetings and FOI acts (that enforcement power was one of the main reasons why your local governments paid – and wasted – good taxpayer money to try to get the FOIA overhaul killed). And you can file such a request, too. Click here to see how easy it is for you to file one.
If you have any trouble, feel free to ask me. Ask my co-workers – I wake up early to start furballs with government officials. My email is at the end of this blog post.
After years of covering Illinois governments, I'm positive that it will take a ruling to set them straight. Despite the ambiguities of the law, I'll channel Justice Potter Stewart and say that I know transparency – and secrecy – when I see it. Hopefully the counselor's office does, too.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.