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BLOOMINGTON — The Illinois Policy Institute sends us another wag of the finger, this time aimed at county governments in East-Central Illinois.

For those not interested in reading the entire thing, IPI, a relatively young conservative think tank, conducted a wide-ranging test of the information county governments have publicly available on their websites, and whether or not they comply with Illinois Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act provisions. FOIA and OMA collectively state that taxing bodies (like counties) that have websites need to put up detailed information on how to make a FOIA request and also make available a calendar of meetings and the agendas and minutes of those meetings.

A majority of the counties failed one or both FOIA/OMA tests, as you can see here, if you aren’t allergic to Google Docs.

For a snapshot of how onerous this is, the cities of Decatur, Bloomington, and Normal are all compliant with these things, though only Decatur’s website made the decision to put a link directly from the home page, rather than buried amid departments. I would know to contact the town of Normal’s clerk for a FOIA request, but one might say that’s because my profession has ensured I functionally know little else. Another erstwhile citizen might not have such an easy time.

Putting up information you can essentially copy and paste from the Attorney General’s Office shouldn’t be that hard for county governments that have already bothered to put up a website, but where IPI’s standards begin to elicit a raised eyebrow is in their grading of counties on information above and beyond these basic things. As you can see from the grading rubric they used to flunk 21 Central Illinois counties, the information IPI is looking for includes detailed disclosure of lobbying efforts, the last five years of contracts, full employee salaries and benefits, and a complete breakdown of the tax revenues and expenditures, preferably all searchable.

Among those earning an F are Clark, Clay, Coles, Cumberland, De Witt, Douglas, Edgar, Effingham, Fayette, Ford, Lawrence, Livingston, Macon, McLean, Moultrie, Piatt, Shelby, Vermilion and Woodford Counties. The counties of Jasper, Marion and Richland don’t have official websites, so have been spared IPI’s disapproval.

And here is the thing: I agree entirely that this information should be available, searchable, and disclosed without a word of protest. I also think state government should have set up some sort of clearing house for this itself, exacting a tax from counties for maintenance, rather than shoving it onto local taxing bodies, many of which already comply with the law to the best of their ability and can’t afford websites. There is simply no need for there to be 102 different ways to look up your property boundaries or find out when commissions are meeting.

Coles County Board Chairman John Hurst said his small, mostly rural county doesn’t employ IT professionals, and that its website is maintained out of the dedication of a few members of a commission. In these ruthless times, Coles County understandably should not be forced to retain a person whose likely sole employment would be contingent upon maintaining a website that, once running, would mainly update itself and need a gentle technical nudge only every now and again.

At the same time, residents of Coles County have a right to that information and in this Information Age, have a reasonable expectation of having it now rather than in a week and a half. That’s what transparency means.

Coles County isn’t making efforts to obfuscate anything, it is just a taxing body that on the whole is smaller than the City of Decatur, which can and does have dedicated IT people. IPI is shaking its head at smaller counties with this study, when the real question is why state-level infrastructure isn’t in place to make a state law happen.

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