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.
Weak state laws let public officials stonewall citizens looking for information
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