Illinois must revise its public-records disclosure law in order to sweep away the culture of secrecy favored by ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and restore confidence in government, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Wednesday.

Illinois must revise its public-records disclosure law in order to sweep away the culture of secrecy favored by ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and restore confidence in government, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Wednesday.


Madigan, a Democrat in her second term as a statewide official, called on lawmakers to ensure that public records are open and accessible. At present, she said, it is "far too easy" for units of local government to evade their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.


She proposed changing state law so that governmental bodies violating the FOIA would be subject to penalties -- fines ranging from $100 to $1,000, depending on the size of the unit of government.


Madigan said she and other advocates of open government are drafting legislation on the subject.


"I'm very hopeful it will get done this session. I certainly think the climate is such that we have a unique opportunity to put some real changes in place for our sunshine laws," she said. "I don't think we're going to find a better opportunity."


While Blagojevich was governor, his office was "clearly violating FOIA," Madigan said, citing instances when his administration refused to release information that should have been accessible to the public. She said she didn't seek to revise FOI laws before Blagojevich's ouster because he wouldn't have backed the changes.


Later Wednesday, Roger Huebner of the Illinois Municipal League said it would be unfair to impose fines in connection with the FOIA.


"The problem ... is the actual language of the law is so convoluted and has been added to and subtracted from and modified, that it's virtually unreadable," he said.


The Freedom of Information Act should be rewritten to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a "public record," and exemptions to the law should be easy for non-lawyers to understand, Huebner said.


But others said they support penalizing public bodies for disregarding the FOIA.


"There is no fear factor," said Dave Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association.


"The current Freedom of Information Act is a toothless tiger. People ignore it routinely and will continue to ignore it" unless there are penalties for violations.


When a governmental unit denies a records request made under FOIA, the only way to fight is by going to court, said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center. That option isn't realistic for most people, she said.


Madigan also wants state law to require FOIA training for officials. The position of public-access counselor, a post that Madigan created when she became attorney general, should be made permanent in the law, she said.


Madigan delivered the remarks during the first of seven scheduled meetings of the newly created Joint Committee on Government Reform, a legislative panel consisting of Democrats and Republicans from the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives.


Wednesday's hearing got off to an uncertain start when Republicans complained that Democrats outnumber them on the committee, 10-6.


Sen. Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said it was ironic to talk about government reform in a committee with "a clearly partisan makeup."


Democrats said the committee membership reflects the membership of the General Assembly, where Democrats hold the majority in the House and Senate.


The committee’s meetings are scheduled for Tuesdays through March 31. Discussion topics will include open government, campaign reform and procurement issues.


Adriana Colindres can be reached at adriana.colindres@sj-r.com.