SPRINGFIELD - Since changes to the laws governing open records and meetings went into effect a little more than a year ago, the public and the media have been making ample use of them.
Instead of filing a lawsuit, members of the public can ask the Public Access Bureau in the Illinois Attorney General's Office to review withheld documents or meetings complaints to make sure government bodies are not violating the Freedom of Information Act or the Open Meetings Act.
The Public Access Bureau dealt with 1,806 such appeals from the public and 159 from the media in 2010.
The bureau has 11 assistant attorneys and six support staff members dedicated to public access. Some were new hires, and others from within the Attorney General's Office took on the new responsibility.
Scott Mulford, spokesman for the Attorney General, said such requests are dealt with as quickly as possible.
"It's been certainly an active year, keeping the attorneys very busy, keeping the bureau very busy," Mulford said. "And that was one of the results we were expecting with the renewed emphasis on transparency."
Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently appointed Amalia Rioja as acting public access counselor to replace Public Access Counselor Cara Smith, who joined the Department of Corrections. Rioja's job is to oversee the Public Access Bureau, where she had been Smith's chief deputy.
If a public body denies a records request because the record contains private information or the record is in draft form, it also must now be cleared beforehand by the Public Access Bureau.
"These workings need to be as transparent as possible so that citizens know what their leaders are doing, why they're doing it and how they're spending public money," Mulford said.
But several proposed laws pending in the new General Assembly would carve out new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.
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For example, House Bill 7, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville, would exempt Firearm Owner's Identification cardholders' names from public disclosure.
A similar provision is listed in state Rep. Brandon Phelps' proposal to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. House Bill 148 would prevent the names of concealed carry permit holders from being made public.
Phelps. D-Harrisburg, said he was concerned about gun owners' privacy.
"We just don't feel like it's anybody's business who has a concealed carry permit," he said.