Last Wednesday, the Illinois Press Association and Wednesday Journal co-sponsored a presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session, with Terry Mutchler, public access counselor with the Illinois Attorney General's office. Discussed were the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act, both of which are poorly understood by the press and government officials alike.
Most of those in attendance worked for newspapers in the western suburbs. Village staff and elected officials were invited as well. Oak Park Village President David Pope and River Forest Village Administrator Charles Biondo, to their credit, attended. Village Communications Director David Powers was also on hand, along with staffers from the Village Clerk's office. We appreciate the interest shown and hope it will lead to an improvement in the way village hall processes FOIA requests.
As Mutchler noted, the point of both pieces of legislation is not to be pro-media but pro-open government. More often than not, however, Oak Park village hall fails to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the FOIA law?#34;a law that needs to be rewritten because as it now exists, government can and does use it as a way to delay releasing information. Since there is no enforcement provision, the law has no teeth and government officials know that. As a result, they can pretty much do what they want with little accountability.
The victim is not the media but open government and local residents are poorly served. The public has every right to public information and often, Mutchler observed, local government entities don't know what is public information and what isn't. Officials also have an obligation to reply in a timely manner?#34;either providing the information or an explanation on why they need more time?#34;but village hall often fails to do both.
Some requests are difficult to comply with in a timely way because of their complexity. That's understandable. We also understand that village staff is sometimes inundated with nuisance requests from local gadflies, but a distinction needs to be made and at the moment, village staff seems to be treating many requests as if they were a nuisance when they should be looking to the media as a way to get information to the public.
If there is confusion about the law, staff needs to be educated. If village hall is deliberately using the law to delay release of information, that's another matter. At the moment, they are not complying with the spirit or the letter in every instance. The result is they give the appearance of opposing open government, which is directly opposed to the stated values of Oak Park village government.
Has VMA learned its lesson?
Last April's village election was a disaster for the Village Manager Association, whose slate was shut out for the first time in its 54-year history. The organization, said critics, including this newspaper, grew complacent and vague, the slate underwhelming and unfocused, and the only ones surprised by the results seemed to be the VMA itself.
Have they learned their lesson? That remains to be seen, but judging by the results of the association's elections held last weekend, the answer seems to be "Not yet." The mission statement is as vague as ever, the members mostly up in years, and there is little evidence that last April's debacle lit a fire of any sort.
Under the dismal leadership of Joanne Trapani, the VMA came to be perceived as the party of big business developers and the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association. That's not enough. To regain influence, they have to stand for something more, not just wait and hope the New Leadership Coalition stumbles badly enough to disenchant voters.
For decades, the VMA succeeded by being all things to all people. Times have changed, but it seems that message hasn't sunk in yet.
An article Jan. 18 about the Oak Park village board's review of building an animal control facility and possibly a shelter ("OP animal control facility light turns green") misidentified the Animal Care League, 1013 Garfield, as the "Animal Control League." Wednesday Journal regrets the error.