Sorry, Moline taxpayers. Operations at the iWireless Center are on a need-to-know basis, even if you're on the hook for any shortfalls.
That's the message sent last month by the Illinois Quad-City Civic Center Authority, or IQCCA. iWireless is extending its sponsorship for the next two years, officials from the quasi-governmental authority announced. But don't ask the price. They're not telling, IQCCA officials made abundantly clear.
"iWireless has more than fairly compensated us," iWireless Center executive director Scott Mullen said.
Well then. While probably true in Mullen's mind, such an assessment should be left up to the citizenry. It is, after all, a wholly subjective, political judgment worthy of debate and discussion in the public sphere.
Mullen's less-than-exacting reply should surprise precisely no one. IQCCA is notoriously transparency averse, even if its decisions directly affect Moline's tax base. Earlier this year, IQCCA was one of the worst performers on the Quad-City Times Sunshine Week Report Card, receiving an "F," because of an awful website, a dearth of meeting minutes and agendas and a publicly available budget that intentionally lacked any meaningful line items.
And, for years, local elected officials have sat back and let this intentional obfuscation happen.
Enter the iWireless deal, on its face a wholly good thing. The cellular provider's 10-year term was about to end this year. Few companies in the Quad-Cities could shoulder the cost of naming rights on that scale, revenue that's instrumental in operations and maintenance at the civic center. Merely changing the sign would have been costly.
The issue isn't with the contract extension. It's with the fact that any shortfall in operational costs at the civic center fall directly to the Moline taxpayer. That's how this whole thing is structured. Yet, because of Illinois' grossly inadequate Freedom of Information Act, local governments can play backroom games with taxpayer cash simply by creating these quasi-government agencies, such as IQCCA. The authority is subject to state open meetings law, for example, but it gets away with a total lack of fiscal accountability at the same time.
It's a discordant affront to the entire spirit of transparency. The terms of most deals with private firms, such as tax increment financing deals, are public.
To be fair, IQCCA has improved its website a tad since our report card. No longer are meeting agendas and minutes backlogged a half-decade or more. As of Wednesday, minutes of the IQCCA board are available online through July 15. Agendas are current through August.
But, still, the website lacks any mention of Freedom of Information requests, especially to whom to direct one. Nowhere are its financials available for review.
Again, if any deals are cut, if any revenues fall short, it's the taxpayers in Moline that are expected to make up the difference. And yet, those very same taxpayers — let alone all citizens — aren't party to financial agreements that have a direct link to how their money is spent.
Transparency laws are under attack and have been for years now. Once seen as the best response to Nixonian corruption, they're now easily dodged annoyances for too many governmental agencies from local to federal. They're toothless, typically putting the burden on the citizen to make the case in court, a costly endeavor. Onerous fee structures are used to beat back requests for documents. Government lawyers nitpick language looking for an excuse to deny a request.
And in Moline, a quasi-governmental agency continually thumbs its nose at the very tenets of good government. The General Assembly should revise FOIA and open meeting laws to better reflect the 21st century. Moline City Council should demand IQCCA comply with the most fundamental principles of open government.
But, in this instance, all that's really required to right things is a basic respect among IQCCA board members for the citizens' right to know.