The Better Government Association takes its case against the Illinois High School Association to the highest court in Illinois on March 21, arguing that the non-profit which oversees high school sports in the state is not immune to public records laws.
The BGA sued the IHSA in 2014 after it refused to turn over any documents related to a request for records, including sponsorship contracts it has signed with Nike, Gatorade and other corporations, as well as which public relations firms it has hired.
The IHSA has argued it is a non-profit organization and not a government body and therefore not subject to the state’s open records laws. The appellate court ruled that IHSA does not perform a governmental function because schools aren’t required to offer sports.
Although the two lower courts have sided with the IHSA, the BGA argues that the agency performs a governmental function by overseeing interscholastic high school sporting events for public schools. Indeed, the IHSA itself once stated in a court case that it was a “local public entity,” and another time said it was “organized for the purpose of conducting public business.”
The lawsuit stems from questions that arose after stories in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2014 reported that salary and benefit costs at the IHSA had increased as revenues and profits decreased.
A broader issue at play in the BGA case is the increasing trend toward privatization of government services.
Increasingly, taxpayers have watched as Chicago, the state of Illinois and government bodies elsewhere have turned over some traditional duties to private entities in the name of efficiency and tax savings. Often left unsaid, however, is how such arrangements affect the public’s right to know about how work is being conducted, who is benefitting and who has access to records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
One of the BGA’s main missions is to keep watch over government bodies in Illinois and promote greater access to public institutions and public records.
“The question before this court is not whether privatization is good or bad. Rather, the question is whether transparency under FOIA will be protected in the process,” the BGA’s court filing states. “A lack of transparency when governmental functions are privatized not only reduces accountability but can have a fundamental impact (without any informed public input) on substantive policies.”