Thom Rae wants to know why his town is spending $1 million to keep a second-run theater afloat.
Kevin and Anne Barber want to know what happened to the principal who forced their 8th grader and his classmates to kneel painfully on a gym floor during a lecture on respect.
Patricia and Joel Garza want to know why so many secrets surround the investigation into the crash that killed their grown son.
They all want answers. The answer they all got was "no."
In Illinois, getting a public record is a frustrating labyrinth of excuses, delays and denials.
Public servants have all the tools they need to keep a grip on information that rightly belongs to the people, whether it's a police report, a principal's disciplinary file or a spending plan, a Tribune examination has found.
Since 2005, more than a thousand citizens have filed complaints about public officials in Illinois who refused requests for public records, most often by completely ignoring them.
A review of those complaints, along with dozens of interviews, reveals a culture of secrecy shrouding the machinery of your government. Public meetings are often theater, where votes are pro-forma endorsements of decisions forged in e-mails and memos you will never be allowed to see.
Government records routinely turned over at the front counters in many other states are routinely denied here -- the result of a notoriously weak open records law, an unsympathetic political culture and an attitude of disdain among many public servants who consider documents their own.
"In my view, it is the worst state in the country when it comes to transparency and open records," said Terry Mutchler, the first-ever head of the Public Access Bureau spearheaded by Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan.
"If you've been through the files then you know what we're up against," said Mutchler, who left last year to start a similar effort in Pennsylvania. "It was horrible, ineffective and unbelievably frustrating."
Don't like it? Hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. In Illinois, that may be your only recourse. Even Madigan, the state's top law enforcement officer, has little authority to pry loose public records beyond writing a strongly worded letter.
Her office wrote more than 100 of them last year alone, according to the Tribune's review of her complaint files. Fewer than two dozen of those letters resulted in the release of the requested records, her files show.
The state's Freedom of Information Act has more pages devoted to what records you can't get than what you can, from public officials' personnel files to memos where they express opinions. Critics of the law, including the Chicago Tribune, have called for a complete overhaul to eliminate broad exemptions commonly used by government to deny records.
Proposals to strengthen the law gained some steam at the Statehouse this year following the corruption arrest of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But they focus less on eliminating loopholes and more on strengthening enforcement of the current law.
One of the most common exemptions is for "preliminary drafts," cited by officials to withhold any number of documents written before government makes a decision -- which is exactly when the records are most needed by those who might question it.
That was the case for the self-appointed La Grange watchdog who asked for all the internal reports, studies and staff memos village leaders used to justify spending nearly $1 million to help renovate the dilapidated La Grange Theatre.
'It doesn't look good for them'Thom Rae has battled what he calls an attitude of secrecy in La Grange for years.
The 54-year-old, who runs a news blog called LaGrangetoday.com, sicced the attorney general's office on the village manager and trustees last year for meeting in secret on a controversial plan to spend $1 million in tax money to help renovate the La Grange Theatre.
Then he asked for the records -- consultants reports, fire code memos and other documents -- that Village Manager Robert Pilipiszyn and the board members were using to justify spending tax money in the public/private partnership.
All he got was Pilipiszyn's three-page summary to the board -- with 15 of 19 paragraphs blacked out. La Grange officials cited the "preliminary draft" exemption as all the permission they needed to wield their marker.
Rae laughed as he pointed to a heading called "Community Involvement" and all the words beneath it were inked out. "The entire entry is a secret," Rae said. "Tell me there's no irony in that one."
Madigan also laughed when the Tribune recently showed her a copy of the redacted document. "It doesn't look good for them," she said. Madigan's deputies likewise expressed their own skepticism last year about whether the village was forthcoming, but told Rae there was nothing more they could do.
Last month, though, the Tribune made its own request for the records and got them.
Pilipiszyn released the complete memo and several other records following the newspaper's inquiries, but by then the point was long since moot. The board voted 4-3 in November to spend the money.
The deciding vote was cast by Village President Liz Asperger, who won her seat with help from the theater's owners. They gave her free slide ads at movies and provided $25 in popcorn for a rally.
Asperger said she supported the theater deal to preserve a village landmark and praised the village's record of transparency.
"Appropriately, there are some things that should not be disclosed," she said. "But we work hard to keep those to a minimum."
Pilipiszyn said the village attorney approved withholding the records because the village was in early stages of considering the deal. He still won't release the report on the theater's financial health, citing potential harm to the owners "if their competitors got a hold of it."
"What competitors?" Rae responded. "It is a second-run theater in La Grange, they don't have any competitors. If they feel there is something to lose from showing the public their finances, then perhaps they shouldn't be asking the public for money."
Pilipiszyn said there were several public meetings where the theater deal was discussed in detail.
"I think we do a great job providing the citizens with all the information they need to make an informed judgment," he said. "I don't want to be the poster child for this issue."
Withholding drafts and other documents used in decision-making may be common practice in Illinois, but it's puzzling to officials from other states.
"Wow, that pretty much encompasses everything government does," said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, Minnesota's top public records official. "I don't get it. How is the public supposed to evaluate the performance of its government if all those records are secret?"
The public needs to see drafts more than almost any other document, said Pat Gleason, a cabinet aide and open-records counsel to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
"They need to know what a government body did in order to reach a decision, what kind of other ideas did they explore and reject," Gleason said. "All those records are public in Florida, and it hasn't yet brought government to a standstill."
'Privacy' excuse just a fig leaf?Another broad exception commonly cited is for anything considered a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." That's the exemption school officials used when irate parents at Clinton Junior High School demanded answers after their 8th-graders were forced to kneel during a lecture about discipline.
The uproar prompted a written apology the next day from Principal John Pine and his deputy Karen Smith. They said the kneeling was used to get students' attention, lasted only a short time and was aimed at curbing an array of disciplinary problems that included swearing, running in halls and showing disrespect to staff.
To parents Kevin and Anne Barber, the apology raised more questions than it answered.
"Obviously, they don't have control of the school," said Kevin Barber, who insists his son did nothing to deserve that treatment. "I want to know what happened."
The Barbers asked for video taken by a security camera in the gym, but were denied on grounds that it would invade the privacy of the children captured on tape. They complained to the attorney general's office, which offered advice on how to request the video but said it could not advise the couple on whether the school in central Illinois had a legitimate reason to withhold it.
The Tribune helped the Barbers file a new request in April, seeking the video and records of any discipline meted out to the administrators. Supt. Jeffrey Holmes denied the discipline records, telling the Tribune the parents would have to trust him that Pine's punishment for the inappropriate assembly was sufficient.
"It's a personnel matter, and it wouldn't be appropriate to release it," he said.
But the Tribune inquiries did prompt Holmes to reconsider the decision to withhold the video.
"You cannot identify any of the students' faces, so we decided that it is not a student record," Holmes said, acknowledging it shows the teenagers were forced to kneel twice for a total of eight minutes.
The Barbers said until this happened they had no idea how little access they had to their own school's records.
"They have custody of our kids for most of the day, and they are telling us to just trust them to handle everything," Anne Barber said. "Well, I am having a hard time trusting them. It is just a shame that it took the Chicago Tribune to get us that videotape."
The Barbers said the incident has left them with a newfound appreciation for the need for open government.
"Just look at the politicians in this state and the corruption everywhere," Kevin Barber said. "And then you look at the difficulty we had getting this little piece of information. It's no wonder these people are so corrupt. It's no wonder they get away with so much."
The privacy exemption is broadly used in Illinois to protect everything from performance evaluations and disciplinary cases to résumés and employment contracts of public servants. It can also be used to deny 911 tapes and redact police reports.
But when public officials don't make such records available, the secrecy sometimes breeds suspicion.
'All I wanted was the truth'In south suburban Steger, Patricia and Joel Garza fought for months seeking copies of police reports and dispatch tapes after their son died in a car crash. When they finally got some records, with help from Madigan's office, the names of all the witnesses -- even the identity of the other driver -- were blacked out for privacy reasons.
"I want to know what they are hiding," Patricia Garza said of the police. "All I wanted was the truth."
According to police, her 24-year-old son, Matthew, died when he blew a red light at 90 miles per hour, legally drunk, and his car was struck by another vehicle. He died instantly, minutes after taking the family van without permission early on the morning of Sept. 29, 2007.
But South Chicago Heights police took more than five hours to notify the Garzas their son was dead. Stunned and confused, the Steger couple demanded a deeper look into the case. Their numerous requests for police reports, photographs and dispatch tapes were at first ignored and then denied, records show.
The attorney general's office tried to help, informing the Steger and South Chicago Heights Police Departments the 911 tapes and accident reports are public records. Garza got some 911 tapes and police reports with large sections blacked out.
"I was stonewalled at every turn," Garza said.
The couple, who had called police to report their son took the car, suspect the police started a pursuit that led to his death. They have no evidence and police have denied it, but the 52-year-old mother scours every new document looking for the slightest discrepancy, sure police are hiding the facts.
The chiefs of both Police Departments involved in the investigation say they sympathize, and acknowledge mistakes were made in complying with the requests.
"I know she thinks we are covering up something," said South Chicago Heights Police Chief Bill Joyce. "Of course we could have handled things better. I understand that."
Joyce said the accident reconstruction took months to complete and the dispatch tapes were withheld because other jurisdictions had to be contacted for permission to release them.
The decision to black out information identifying witnesses and the other driver was made by Parker Johnson, the attorney for South Chicago Heights.
Johnson said he decided to black out anything that contained private information even though Illinois law specifies that identities of witnesses to traffic accidents should be released.
The Tribune obtained a copy of the complete report, and a review shows the deletions went beyond witness identities. Also blacked out was the make, model and year of the other car, as well as its contents which included a cooler, a radar detector and sunglasses.
"In hindsight, that was probably not necessary," Johnson said about deleting those details.
"It is possible some words get blacked out that shouldn't, but there is a very real concern about the disclosure of private and personal information."
The frustrations of people like Patricia Garza have not been enough to change the law in Illinois.
Most states that have passed good transparency laws did so because lawmakers and politicians were forced to by a citizenry fed up with political scandal, said Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri.
"I can't imagine you guys in Illinois are not at that point," he said. "History proves that government officials cannot be trusted to police themselves, whether it is a police department, a city hall, or a governor ... and in the case of Illinois, two governors in a row."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun