Access to public information a struggle

Information is crucial to governing bodies and their citizens, and no city knows that more than Chicago. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel enters the second year of his term, information-seekers are raising questions about the city’s willingness to be transparent. These questions date back to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s reign, and they don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon.

Several of the latest controversies can be traced back to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some Chicago publications are having an increasingly difficult time getting information from the city. According to a Nov. 8, 2011 Chicago Tribune article, the newspaper fought with the city for a year over the release of police staffing records. The court eventually forced the police department to hand over the information, but only after a taxing process.

The article also stated that the tedium in Chicago’s system is unmatched in other metropolitan cities. In cities like Boston and Phoenix, pertinent public information is easily accessed on the cities’ websites.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) 101

The Freedom of Information Act was implemented for citizens, journalists or not, to obtain information from governing bodies that is generally undisclosed. These records can be anything from payroll information and arrests to documents on a national level. There are nine exemptions from this, according to the FOIA website, but the information must be provided if it isn’t an exception.

To make a request, one first needs to contact the agency or department of interest. A lot of the time, there will be someone in the department who deals specifically with FOIAs. From there, give them as much information as possible on what’s desired. More detail ensures accurate documentation.

While I was writing this article, I heard a lot about Chicago’s supposedly tedious FOIA process, and I decided to look into it personally. I didn’t request as a media affiliate because I wanted to see how they treated a regular citizen. I emailed the Chicago Police Department on Feb. 8, but it was late in the afternoon, so the documented day of request was Feb. 9. I outlined my request and waited.

The next day, I received a phone call from CPD. They said I wasn’t specific enough in my request, which I will attest to. I gave them more specific information, but that wasn’t the end of it. They gave me reasons for why the information I requested is difficult to obtain because of police beat boundaries. It might be murky, they added. I said I understood. They asked me if I had considered talking to campus police. Apparently, the information I asked for is reported to them if it’s pertinent to campus. I said I wasn’t interested. Eventually, we reached an agreement, and they said they would get the information to me as soon as they could.

According to Chicago Tribune reporter David Kidwell, this is a direct result of Illinois law. He said that there are three exemptions public officials can use against providing information: Invasion of privacy, expressing opinions or formulating public policy, and if one requests more than ten documents, it’s viewed as burdensome for the official.

“Essentially, there is no such thing as a public record in the state,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell has written several articles for the Tribune detailing transparency issues in Emanuel’s administration, including the aforementioned article. He argued that journalists must ensure that politicians follow through with their promises, and he said Emanuel promised Chicagoans a new kind of transparency.

“I guess you could argue that it is because he doesn’t have very far to go,” he said. “He has made things more accessible.”

However, Kidwell maintained that it isn’t good enough. The city is “reaching into our pockets constantly,” he said, without returning the favor and providing the information citizens pay for.

“I don’t know how they get away with it, but they do,” he said. “That kind of atmosphere is a breeding ground for corruption.”

Kidwell said that there was a “presumption of disclosure” in President Obama’s administration, where Emanuel came from, and he’d hoped the mayor would bring that philosophy to Chicago. He doesn’t see it.

“It is easier to run a government in secret,” he said.

Above all, Kidwell wants Emanuel to understand that citizens have a right to see the records they deserve to see. Until then, he said, the Tribune is going to keep “pounding and pounding away” at the administration.

“Transparency is supposed to hurt,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be convenient.”

Mick Dumke, a senior writer at the Chicago Reader, filed a lawsuit against city FOIA representatives near the end of Daley’s term after what he saw as continued negligence and refusal to cooperate with the release of information.

“They can be very erratic about responding to FOIA requests,” he explained.

Dumke also argued that most of the information released through FOIAs should be publicized, and if the government complied, FOIAs would be unnecessary.

“It shouldn’t be a burden on the government,” he said.

Despite being pressed by journalists, the city has yet to formally respond, according to Dumke. He said the city treats most of these issues on a case-by-case basis.

“The response from the city has mostly been a middle finger,” he said. “They’re definitely aware.”

But despite the inconveniences for journalists, Dumke maintained that this is first and foremost a public concern.

“It’s not the city’s responsibility to make our lives easier,” he said. “The public owns this data. This is public information. You shouldn’t have to be a journalist to ask for this stuff.”

And journalists are far from the only Chicagoans seeking information. The Chicago Inspector General’s office, for example, serves to investigate misdeeds within the city and makes recommendations on how violators should be reprimanded, according to press spokesman Jon Davey.

To do its job correctly, the Inspector General needs “complete and unfiltered information,” stated the cover letter of the office’s most recent quarterly report. However, Davey said the office hasn’t quite received that. In 2008, they tried to acquire information related to potential employee violations in the mayor’s office. Some documents passed, but the city withheld some and invoked attorney-client privilege.

“We disagreed pretty vehemently and filed a lawsuit,” Davey said. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

But despite these issues, Dumke isn’t entirely pessimistic about the city’s transparency. For example, he said the City of Chicago website has a data portal that contains city payroll and crime statistics, among other information. Additionally, he said Emanuel is savvy with public relations and continues to offer resources like a live town hall via Facebook.

“I just think that they’ve got a little ways to go,” he said.