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Friday, September 19, 2008

Future of Illinois public access office becomes questionable?

When Lisa Madigan became Illinois' attorney general, she pledged to hire a public access counselor to help average citizens gain access to public records that they otherwise would not have had the time or money to fight the government for.

Terry Mutchler, the counselor hired, operated with the principle: "No one is above the state's public access laws." But now she's leading Pennsylvania's new open records office. A hiring freeze has been imposed. And, most disturbing of all, the governor has cut the attorney general's budget by 25 percent, more than any other state agency.

The public access office is left with a counselor and fewer resources to continue handling more than 1300 open meetings and FOIA cases a year, most requested by citizens.
During Lisa Madigan's campaign to become Illinois' attorney general, people took note when she pledged to throw back the shades and shed light on the inner-workings of state, local, and county government. Her plan was simple: to hire a public access counselor who would help average citizens and those elected officials with an independent streak understand state laws and, when needed, ride public bodies until they disclosed credit card statements, closed session minutes, cell phone records, and the like.

Dropping the hammer on Illinois public officials who have earned a reputation for doing their bidding behind closed doors -- from single-school districts all the way up to the governor's office -- may have come at a cost, Madigan's deputy chief of staff Cara Smith said. The governor decided to trim AG's budget by more than any other state agency this year. "Do I think this is a coincidence that our budget was cut by 25 percent? Absolutely not," Smith added.

And the public access office has become a casualty of the cuts.

Last spring, Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler called it quits, after landing a job to head up Pennsylvania's new open records office. With the attorney general's budget gutted, a hiring freeze has been imposed, which has left her position vacant for nearly four months.

More here.

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