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Our View: FOIA keeps government accountable

Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 11:29 p.m. CDT

Our much-envied way of life in the United States, we’re often told, comes at a price.

That reminder usually surfaces as we pay tribute to the brave men and women who serve so selflessly in the U.S. military.

Sometimes, though, the price of making our great society function can be measured in actual dollars and cents. And, make no mistake, without the Freedom of Information Act, this country would not be nearly as great.

FOIA is a law that opens government records to members of the public. It is what empowers citizens to know how their tax dollars are being spent and keeps government corruption from running rampant at the local, state and federal levels.

Yes, responding to some of the more detailed FOIA requests can be costly. As we reported earlier this week in the Kane County Chronicle, St. Charles School District 303 in December spent more than $16,000 responding to a FOIA request from Kathy Kapusta, a St. Charles woman who sought information related to the district’s use of procurement cards.

We at the Chronicle regularly make use of FOIA requests, and the results make a huge difference in our ability to keep readers informed about important happenings in their community.

FOIA-driven reporting helped us shine light on the inflated enrollment numbers used by Geneva School District 304 that factored into a referendum used to build two new elementary schools and make various upgrades at other schools. Police investigation records obtained through FOIA allowed us to detail the thousands of dollars of unauthorized expenditures made by former Geneva streets superintendent Stephen LeMaire. And our own extensive report about local school districts’ use of P-cards also came through FOIA requests.

Sometimes FOIA requests are met with grumbling from local officials, who tend to be unenthused about the time and effort required to respond. That’s understandable, but we should all keep in mind that the cost to society of a government allowed to operate shrouded in secrecy would be incalculably higher.

Many FOIA requests would not be necessary if more governmental bodies would hand over basic information upon unofficial requests. But, in many cases, inquiries are not properly addressed unless a FOIA request mandates it, making for a more drawn-out, time-intensive process for all involved.

There are examples of transparency in the area that deserve to be commended. In 2013, Kane County was identified as the only county in the state to score 100 percent for transparency based on the wealth of public information included on the county’s website, countyofkane.org. St. Charles School District 303 has a helpful section on its website where it lists past FOIA requests and the district’s responses.

But there are many public officials that would prefer their decisions remain unexamined, their expenditures unchecked. Be thankful that the FOIA prevents our country from operating this way. Even when it comes at a substantial price tag, keeping the government accountable is money well spent.

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