Our legal system is the envy of the world. People flock to this country and seek citizenship here not just because of the economic opportunities but because we have laws and governance that protect citizens’ rights. Local government, especially, has a vested interest in transparency and getting information out to the public in a timely fashion to ensure public safety and confidence.
However, the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office, in recent months, has become a self-determined gatekeeper when it comes to disseminating information to the public and, more recently, even to our elected officials. At issue is the current appointed state’s attorney’s effort to deny requests for information regarding the 1% Public Safety Sales Tax and the deliberations over the county’s position on the 911 Call Center. This is not only a poor precedent to set, but it undermines confidence in county government.
I agree with Chuck Prorok who said in a recent Register Star article about a lack of transparency in county government that it is “the wrong message to send.” I had the honor of working for the then Chief of the Civil Bureau, Chuck Prorok, and Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli as an assistant state’s attorney for nearly eight years. They both earned the trust of the public by facilitating the dissemination of information even before the Freedom of Information Act became law in this state.
Trust in government and its functions are a critical part of our democracy. Withholding information or even the appearance of withholding information implies that something is being hidden for a reason and probably not a good one. The public has an absolute right to know about what is ordinarily public information concerning their tax dollars. The state’s attorney, as Winnebago County government’s lawyer, should facilitate those requests, not stifle them.
The state’s attorney’s lack of transparency has become another poisonous addition to an already toxic environment in county politics. The State’s Attorney’s Office should have no agendas, either personal or political, and certainly should not be used as a tool of those with their own agendas. The role of the state’s attorney is simply to seek justice. Without a proper understanding of that role, public confidence erodes and the consequences can be dire.
Sadly, we have one more example of government dysfunction in an office that is critical to our county government as a whole. As an attorney, I have great respect for the law and the justice system. As such, I also understand that politicizing or undermining confidence in the Office of the State’s Attorney is a serious issue that can’t be ignored.
The current appointed state’s attorney should remedy the lack of transparency by leading by example and facilitating an open county government that restores the trust of the public.
David Gill served as an assistant state’s attorney and a private attorney for 18 years in Winnebago County.