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During school board meetings in west suburban Hinsdale, an elected official can't veer off the agenda to ask a question. When she asks for documents that aren't readily available, she has to explain why she wants them, and fellow board members can deny her request.
In the village of Island Lake, a trustee must funnel legal questions through the village clerk instead of just asking the village attorney directly. When she posted public documents on her blog, a fellow board member suggested that she figure out if she would rather be a trustee or a "blogmaster."
And last month, a school board member in Lemont nearly got censured -- reprimanded publicly -- for trying to bypass the district superintendent and board president in her efforts to get records.
The Citizen Advocacy Center, an Elmhurst-based nonprofit community legal group that advocates for democracy, said it has seen an increase in public officials calling with complaints that they're getting locked out.
"Inevitably, someone who is a concerned citizen ends up throwing their hat in the ring to run for public office to effect change," said Terry Pastika, executive director. "But in the last five years, we've been seeing a growing trend of public bodies taking action to squash out board members who are a political minority and make them as ineffective as possible. They may be on the board, but now they're getting shut down."
In Hinsdale Township High School District 86, Dianne Barrett, a school board member since 2005 who previously was president of the Clarendon Hills Park District Board, ran into trouble when she started criticizing school officials over what she called "a backdoor referendum" to pay for school improvements and an artificial turf field.
At a board meeting, she described the district's shuffling of money from one fund to another to another with no intentions of repaying it as "money laundering." She felt it wasn't fair for taxpayers to see an increase in taxes but not get a say in the matter. The district spent $2,100 in legal fees to censure her for using that term.
Since then, her questions about the number of complaints filed by parents of special education students and the money spent on legal fees settling those disputes have been met with eye rolls from board members who accuse her of spreading "lies." Her fellow board members have set new procedures that ensure the board sticks to the agenda and prevent a board member from getting documents the majority feels are unnecessary.
"They're trying to tell me what I can say and obstructing me from getting the documents I need to perform my duties as an elected official," Barrett said. "It's not like I'm being a rabble-rouser, but these are public documents."
The situation could improve after Jan. 1, when changes to the state's public records law will strengthen the ability of the Illinois attorney general's office to hold public bodies accountable for denying access to public records. The law authorizes a public access counselor to mediate disputes over records and makes the counselor's opinions binding, with penalties for noncompliance.
"Public bodies have gotten comfortable with an unenforceable law and have gotten very good at roadblocks, making it brutally difficult to give access to information that the public is entitled to or board members are entitled to," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan's deputy chief of staff, Cara Smith.