Illinois Governor Withholds Research Reports on New Chicago Airport

SEPTEMBER 28, 2012

Comment by Phil Kadner

Illinois has spent nearly $30 million acquiring land for a south suburban airport and plans to spend $70 million more. But Gov. Pat Quinn refuses to release research and reports (also paid for with tax money) that could shed some light on who might someday control that airport.

The governor denied a SouthtownStar freedom of information request to see the documents, and after this newspaper appealed, the Illinois attorney general's office upheld Quinn's decision to keep the documents secret.

From July 2010 to December 2011, the governor's office paid the law firm of Holland & Knight more than $300,000 "to conduct legal research and analysis, and provide advice on various legal matters relating to potential construction of an airport in the south suburban Chicago area." It's logical to assume at least some of those reports focused on the viability of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC), formed by south suburban municipalities under the direction of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2nd), of Chicago.

Officials in Will County have challenged the legal authority of ALNAC and want the governor to recognize the county as the proper governing authority should an airport be built. The Federal Aviation Administration has indicated it will not give final approval to any south suburban airport project until a "regional consensus" on the governing authority has been formed.

Hundreds of homeowners in the 5,800-acre footprint of the airport have been living in limbo for more than two decades as the state's commitment to the project has waxed and waned under different administrations. Recently, a group of Southland political, civic and religious leaders called on Quinn to make a decision on airport governance so the construction of the airport near Peotone could move forward.

The governor contends the documents he is hiding are covered by attorney-client privilege and also are exempt from disclosure because they represent preliminary drafts and recommendations on which policies or opinions may be formulated.

And I argue that's precisely why the public is entitled to the information.

In upholding Quinn's decision to keep the information secret, the attorney general's office states: "Based upon our review of the records which have been withheld, it is clear that they are communications in which Holland & Knight provided the Governor's Office with legal advice on a variety of issues related to the proposed airport. Many of the records are marked as confidential and privileged." The attorney general's office goes on to note that "Mr. Kadner emphasizes and we agree that these records pertain to a matter of significant public interest." Based on previous court rulings and exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, however, the attorney general's office concludes the information can be kept from the public.

But even if the law says Quinn can keep the documents a secret, it doesn't mean he has to or that he should.

On Thursday, Quinn's office announced it had reached a "milestone" in development of the airport by submitting to the FAA a draft airport layout plan. That "demonstrates Governor Quinn's commitment to building the critical airport as soon as possible."

In a news release, his office touts the project as "an important economic engine" for the state, which is an understatement. During the current economic recession, the airport project (which would be privately developed) could create more jobs than any other government project in the state. But Quinn and his predecessor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, dawdled and stalled, delaying the airport's development by years. And the key sticking point has remained the same: Who is going to govern the airport and award the contract to build it?

Actually, political interference has blocked the project for nearly 20 years, when it was originally placed on the FAA's national priority list. Back then it was Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley who intervened, fearing a giant airport would take money and patronage jobs away from O'Hare and Midway airports.

For the first and only time in its history, the FAA decided a "regional consensus" was needed before it would approve construction of a new airport and removed Peotone from its list of priority projects. At that time, the consensus meant an agreement between the governor and the Chicago mayor. But Daley is gone and the airport has been downsized from "twice the size of O'Hare" to one terminal and one runway. There are many who believe such a small airport cannot be successful and at least an equal number who feel it could provide an economic boon to the Southland, which has communities with the highest unemployment rates and property tax rates in Cook County.

Both sides, however, should be able to agree that any research about governance and operation of the airport ought to be public knowledge. Keeping the public in the dark about these matters serves no useful purpose. Taxpayers have paid and will continue to pay to buy airport land. They have paid for all of the research and reports prepared by Holland & Knight.

What's the governor's reason for keeping this stuff secret? Attorney-client privilege. I would argue we, the taxpayers, are the client not the governor.

Quinn apparently believes he's a privileged person. He's not. He's just our employee.

Source: (Copyright 2012 Sun-Times Media, LLC)