Saturday, April 24, 2010
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Unions push to remove evaluations from new FOIA law

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[April 24, 2010]  SPRINGFIELD -- Less then five months after Gov. Pat Quinn signed what he called a major new law to open up government, lawmakers are moving to keep information about public employees secret.

HardwareA Senate committee earlier this week approved a plan that would exempt performance evaluations for all public employees from Illinois' recently expanded freedom of information law.

The FOIA law gained strength and teeth on Jan. 1 and has been under assault since then.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, is shepherding HB 5154 through the General Assembly.

She said teachers unions and labor groups that represent state workers want to make sure only employees and supervisors can read the results of an employee evaluation.


Tim Drea with the Illinois AFL-CIO said if performance reviews are public, then those evaluations may become worthless.

"It does not contribute to a healthy work environment. ... It's just like pushing people to the side and saying, 'I don't want any grief so I'm going to give you excellent, excellent, excellent on your evaluation' and move on."

But Melissa Hahn, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, said that's not the problem. She said performance evaluations can be used to protect favored workers or punish workers who toe the line. And Hahn said by keeping those evaluations secret, taxpayers will never know the difference.

"This is usually used as a way to root out corruption, and it's a way for journalists and the public to try to find some sort of evidence of that," Hahn said. "It's not like people are showing up in droves to see everyone's performance evaluation."

But state Sen. Maggie Crotty, D-Chicago, acknowledges that's a common fear around the statehouse.

"This isn't just the press that gets this information. ... The person who's getting evaluated, their colleague (can also read it). So I think it'd be a disservice to the whole evaluation process."

HB 5154 is not the first rollback of the new FOIA law. Lawmakers approved a similar carve-out for teachers and principals as part of a deal with teachers unions for the federal Race to the Top education funding program. Illinois never received any Race to the Top money, but lawmakers made the FOIA change anyway.

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Sharon Voliva with the Illinois Federation of Teachers said the union now wants to make sure all other public employees are on even footing with the teachers.

"We are trying to narrow that much in scope to protect performance evaluations," Voliva said. "As to how much broader that could go, I don't know without a ruling from the atorney general's office."

That's what Hahn fears. She said it took Illinois a long time to expand the freedom of information law, but it's taken very little time to roll it back.

"These lawmakers who voted for opening the freedom of information act and the governor who signed it are now starting to chip away at that very freedom of information act," Hahn said. "So basically, we gained a lot last year ... and now we're losing it."

The legislation is now headed for a vote in the full Senate. It has already passed the House.


On the Net:

HB 5154

[Illinois Statehouse News; By BENJAMIN YOUNT]


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