Our View: Sunshine week is about keeping public records open for all

Access to government records is important because it gives the public the chance to see if the people tasked with the people’s business are doing their jobs appropriately

Over the past year, Shaw Local News Network newspapers have made more than 100 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests of local governmental bodies across northern Illinois. Some of those requests fell on deaf ears and we have used our lawyers to continue to fight to make those government documents public. But, more often than not, our FOIA requests have led to important stories.

This fight we wage for government transparency is commemorated as Sunshine Week, a national awareness event led by the News Leaders Association, of which Shaw is a member.

“How do you get to the truth when public officials so rarely step up to take direct responsibility for failures? The answer is public records. And public meetings. And access to the information that taxpayers deserve,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, a lawyer and a former editor of USA Today. “ … Access to government information is critical to every American who cares about the quality of his or her community, state and nation.”

Access to government records is important because it gives the public the chance to see if the people tasked with the people’s business are doing their jobs appropriately.

Just this week, the Northwest Herald published an article based on emails obtained through the FOIA that showed a candidate for Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 disregarded a contact tracing order, bringing her children to school anyway and telling school staff, despite video evidence, her children were not on the bus with a child who tested positive for COVID-19.

Here are examples of other FOIA requests Shaw newspapers have made in the past year on your behalf.

Last summer, the DeKalb Daily Chronicle began sending FOIA requests to the DeKalb County Health Department related to COVID-19 outbreaks in local longterm care facilities. Since the pandemic began, many facility staff had been unwilling, for various reasons, to speak to media, and attempting to access records via a public agency, such as the health department, was a way to determine how these facilities were mitigating viral spread. The Daily Chronicle has an ongoing series devoted to telling these stories about longterm care facilities. Here are some of the stories:

“So many tears” (June 10, 2020) used documents to reveal Pine Acres’ staff’s efforts to fight COVID-19 outbreak in the facility.

“Inside DeKalb County’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak at Willow Crest Nursing Pavilion” (Oct. 7, 2020) explains how the staff there changed how they care for residents.

“Devastating beyond words” (Dec. 6, 2020) gets inside Prairie Crossing’s COVID-19 outbreak in rural Shabbona.

The Joliet Herald-News’ efforts to obtain the naming rights agreement for the city-owned baseball stadium began after the city of Joliet, Joliet Slammers baseball team and DuPage Medical Group announced the agreement in 2019. Records were not made public until November 2020, when Shaw Media, the owner of the Herald-News sued and won the release of the document (Nov. 8, 2020).

Until the agreement was released, even members of the Joliet City Council did not know what the naming rights fees involved. When it was released, it became apparent the city received less than its $67,500 share naming rights fees because of allowed deductions. It became apparent for the first time that the mayor signed it without council approval.

As a result of Kane County Chronicle reporter Eric Schelkopf’s FOIA request to the Kane County Health Department last August, he learned that Luau Coffee in Campton Hills had been issued a notice of noncompliance (Aug. 28, 2020) by the department for not following guidelines regarding masks. Luau’s no-mask policy went against Gov. JB Pritzker’s order requiring businesses, schools and day care facilities to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure patrons and employees wear face coverings when they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

And the Northwest Herald reported on questionable uses of force, showing body camera footage of the incident under investigation (Aug. 4, 2020). The newspaper also published a story that showed what it was like for a McHenry County facility that serves those with developmentally disabilities to endure weeks and then months of lockdown following a COVID-19 outbreak (Feb. 12).

All of this important work was made possible, in large part, because of the Freedom of Information Act and the records, emails and videos Shaw news organizations can obtain on readers’ behalf.

Initiatives such as Sunshine Week also prove a valuable lesson that all citizens can gain access to public records as well.

Happy Sunshine Week.