In a court victory for the Better Government Association, the Illinois Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling barring Illinois cities from imposing their own exemptions to state open records law.
An earlier Illinois Appellate Court decision, in a case brought by the BGA against the village of Rosemont, required that community to release financial records tied to entertainment venues that are owned by the village.
But the Appellate ruling has implications beyond Rosemont and could affect how all 214 “home-rule” towns in Illinois must answer requests for documents under the state Freedom of Information Act.
That’s because in its ruling the Appellate court said “only state statutes may create additional restrictions on disclosure of information” even though home-rule communities have greater latitude in governing themselves.
All Illinois communities with populations over 25,000 are automatically granted home-rule status, while some smaller towns also have achieved it through voter referendum. Rosemont, located in the shadow of O’Hare International Airport, is a home-rule community and Chicago is the largest home-rule municipality in Illinois.
The ruling in June stems from a 2015 case the BGA brought against Rosemont after the suburb refused to release financial and rental terms as well as revenue figures in contracts it had for events at the Allstate Arena and the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Both facilities are owned by the village.
The village argued a recently passed ordinance protected the information from disclosure and said revealing it would put the town at a competitive disadvantage against venues that are privately run. Rosemont mayor Bradley Stephens described the information as “trade secrets.”
In taking the case to court, the BGA argued the information was necessary to determine how well the village of Rosemont was doing in renting out the facilities.
The BGA’s suit came after Rosemont had held back similar information sought by the Chicago Tribune for contracts the village signed with country superstar Garth Brooks’ longtime promoter for Brooks to hold a series of concerts at the village-owned Allstate Arena in 2014. Rosemont eventually did release more information in that case and disclosed it paid Brooks $1 million to open his tour.
The Appellate Court concluded Rosemont’s attempt at legislating exceptions to open records law was an assault on transparency.
By Rosemont’s logic, the court said, “The public disclosure of information in the possession of a (home rule unit) would be largely at the unfettered discretion of that body. This would derogate the purpose of both the state and federal Freedom of Information Acts.”