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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The most transparent government Chicago has ever seen, part 1

Posted By on 12.01.11 at 03:00 PM

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  • Daniel X. O'Neil / FLICKR
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has repeatedly vowed to create “the most open, accountable, and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen.”

This sets him apart from his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, who would only promise that city government would become “more accountable, open, and transparent.”

It’s also the kind of declaration Mayor Emanuel makes regularly—sort of like his claim to have put hundreds more cops in city neighborhoods.

It sounds impressive, even audacious.

It reiterates the Emanuel narrative that Chicago was teetering under the weight of its own excesses before the new mayor ushered in a new era—in which Chicago may continue to teeter under the weight of its own excesses, but at least now we can openly blame Daley.

And it’s phrased in such a subjective, open-ended way that it can’t be measured or proven wrong.

In this case, Emanuel can honestly state that he's bringing us “unprecedented transparency” without doing much at all, since there’s never been a lot of sunlight at City Hall.

After all, Mayor Daley’s greatest exercise in transparency was his decision to publicly disclose every Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the city. When he announced the initiative, Daley could hardly stop giggling long enough to claim it was about opening up government, not fucking with reporters.

Of course, the FOIA logs let the public know who was asking for what, but said nothing about how long it took the city to fulfill the requests—or if the city did at all. That was Daley's brand of accountability. He wasn't even transparent about being murky.

It’s clear there have been improvements under Emanuel. For example, you can now go to the city’s website to find extensive lobbying information, such as who’s sweet-talking city officials and what they’re spending money on.

On the other hand, the mayor isn’t interested in sharing plenty of other information, such as the records of whom he’s sweet-talking and who’s sweet-talking him. And he’s very open about the fact that he doesn't give a shit what we think about it.

Still, it may be too soon to say the age of opacity has ended.

The Tribune reports that the Emanuel administration has denied another FOIA request for records.

The Trib was told it can’t have e-mails and internal communications related to the mayor’s big revenue-generating plans—the hikes in our water and sewer rates and the installation of cameras to rake in more cash from speeders. The administration claimed the request was burdensome and the materials exempt from disclosure.

You can’t criticize the mayor for inconsistency. Last month the paper was denied access to cell phone bills, Emanuel e-mails, and other documents. The requests were shared with the public on the city's website. The denials weren't.

Somehow, this has to be Daley’s fault.

But I’m here to tell the Trib folks that there’s life on the other side of FOIA rejection. Among other advantages, it gives you a great opportunity to spend more time in the court system. Earlier this year, during the waning days of the old Daley era, I had to sue the city over FOIA denials.

As of now, nearly six months into the new era of the Emanuel administration, the city is still fighting me.

Come back tomorrow to read part two of this examination of the Emanuel administration's transparency...

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