Government Transparency Is The Responsibility Of Citizens Too

Sep 15, 2017

Most Freedom of Information Act requests come from people outside of the journalism field.

"We get requests every single day from regular citizens who are interested just in knowing what the government is up to," according to Annum Haider, civic engagement coordinator with the Better Government Association. "They are trying to get more information to be more engaged."

The Better Government Association is an independent, non-partisan government watchdog. Matt Topic is the group's outside legal counsel and conducts trainings on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act.  Topic and Haider will lead a free training at Northern Illinois University next week called "How to Be A Better Watchdog."

If a request is rejected by a government agency, Matt Topic says people should be diligent.

"The law is written in a way that really is in the public's favor," Topic said. "The government has to prove there is a legal basis to withhold the record and the courts apply an enhanced level of scrutiny beyond a typical case."

There are a number of remedies available if they don't get the documents they are requesting.

But being a watchdog can be intimidating. Topic explains that there are methods to request public documents anonymously.

"Maybe you are employed by the government and you think something is wrong, but you don't want your boss to know that you are behind [the request.] There can be some limitations, but it is a good way to address that issue if people have those concerns," Topic said.

Topic says the material stays fresh because every case is unique and new questions pop up all the time related to the FOIA process.

He says the process of requesting documents from an agency can become a dialogue, and that's okay.

"While there are some public bodies who we find to be very difficult to deal with, a great many of them are pretty reasonable," Topic said. "Often times, it may be that the requestor doesn't realize the full scope of what they are asking for. It's really important that there be open dialogue on both sides."

When it comes to the Open Meetings Act, Topic says there should be public comment allowed in city council meetings.

Annum Haider (left) Matt Topic (right)

"On behalf of a different client, I did a case against the Chicago City Council who, for decades, has not allowed public comment at city council meetings. We sued and prevailed and now there will be public comment at city council meetings," Topic said.

He says other common Open Meetings Act violations include items not being placed on an agenda or public bodies going into closed session and addressing issues that should be addressed in public.

Haider says the training will be for people who want to learn more about how they can observe questionable patterns.

Topic says it is important for people to keep in mind that public money is being collected by these government bodies.

"We have a right to know how they are operating. People, even if they aren't journalists, there's an awful lot they can do to monitor how money is being spent at the local level."