Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios is the latest in a long line of Illinois officials to learn they can’t keep the public’s business secret. Like the others, Berrios has wasted taxpayer money fighting to keep information from the people who pay his salary and keep the lights on in his office.
On Friday, a three-judge Illinois appellate panel affirmed what a lower court judge told Berrios in December of 2016: No, you can’t deny the Tribune’s request for more information about how your office assesses residential and commercial properties. Turn over these documents.
A quick recap: In June 2017 the Tribune, later joined by ProPublica Illinois, began exposing how Berrios' system results in punishing property tax bills for disadvantaged communities while affluent property owners hire attorneys to win assessment reductions. And downtown buildings have been systematically undervalued at the expense of small businesses in poor neighborhoods.
The Tribune requested more information about how Berrios’ assessment process works, citing the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Berrios refused, saying the information was part of a “deliberative process” and therefore not subject to state open records laws. In the 2016 ruling, Cook County Circuit Judge Neil H. Cohen scoffed at Berrios’ argument and ruled for the Tribune.
Berrios foolishly appealed. Which brings us to Friday’s slapdown. “The public has a strong right to know about how they are being taxed by their government as opposed to the government’s fairly meek interest in secrecy. The balance in this case weighs in favor of the public, and in favor of disclosure,” Appellate Justice John C. Griffin wrote. “The information requested by the Tribune in this case is critical in order for the public to understand how they are being taxed.”
Got that, Mr. Berrios, and all you officials who hide public documents from the public? The public has a strong right to know. When will every public official learn that lesson? How much more taxpayer money will officials waste as they futilely try to keep citizens in the dark?
Enough, Mr. Berrios. Turn over the documents.