Friday, December 2, 2011

The most transparent government Chicago has ever seen, part 2

Posted By on 12.02.11 at 02:00 PM

I may have mentioned that the Emanuel administration is still working on that transparency and information sharing thing. Here’s a small example of what I mean.

Earlier this week the New York Times wrote about the way public-sector layoffs—all of that payroll trimming that politicians around the country are boasting about—disproportionately include African-Americans. The piece opened with the story of Don Buckley, a pink-slipped bus driver for the CTA.

I thought it would be interesting—and not that difficult—to see exactly how this has played out in Chicago, where city workers are the backbone of many middle- and working-class neighborhoods, especially on the south and southwest sides.

Silly me.

Chicago has been in the worker cutting mode for a long time. The city payroll has shrunk from about 42,000 to 34,000 over the last 20 years, with more than 600 workers laid off just since June, according to records that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has posted online as part of his transparency initiative. (Still, even with the staff reductions, the city's annual budget has nearly doubled during that time.)

But those records don’t show the race of who’s been trimmed out of a job. Nor do they show where the employees live, which amounts to about the same thing in a city this segregated.

A few years ago, in the dark ages known as the Daley era, city officials provided me a list of city employees that included all of their ZIP codes. I figured I’d just ask Emanuel’s people for an updated list.

So I called the city Human Resources department and told the media liaison what I wanted. I even offered to submit a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

She was nice enough to save me the trouble: she told me flat out that I couldn’t have the information, FOIA or not. Unlike three years ago, it's the city's position that the privacy of city employees will be violated if their ZIP codes are released—in which case I'd be able to see the names of all the city workers who live in, say, 60647. And who knows what might happen then.

Alright, fine. So how about removing the names and just giving me a list of city positions, salaries, and ZIP codes?

She said she’d check.

A couple hours later she called back. I was away from my desk, so she left me a very polite message. It amounted to: no.

That’s because I could compare this redacted payroll data with the information posted online and still figure out who lives in, say, 60647. And seriously—who knows what might happen then!

So I called back and left her a message: How about removing the names and the titles? How about simply giving me a list of all the ZIP codes of city employees?

She hasn’t called me back.

I'm left with no other choices except to drop the matter or submit a FOIA and stand by until it's rejected. And at this point I can't drop the matter, so I really have only one choice.

City officials say they get so many FOIA requests that responding to them all has become a serious resource drain. But this is one of the reasons why—we don't have any other way to get information about our government.

As a result, I will be adding to their workload and submitting another FOIA request. I don’t mind saying this publicly since it won’t be a secret anyway. That's because the Emanuel administration has resumed Daley’s old habit of posting FOIA requests online. It’s also kept up Daley’s habit of not posting any information showing how responsive the city is.

And then I will have to wait. I can say it with certainty—the Emanuel administration is transparent about that much.

Under state law, government agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within five working days.

That doesn't mean they have to wait all five days, but the city does anyway, no matter how long they actually need to respond. I've been told this by the FOIA officers in a number of city departments.

Last month, for example, I sent a request for some financial records to the guy who for years handled FOIA requests for the city comptroller’s office and budget department.

Five working days later, he sent me an e-mail informing me that the comptroller’s office was the right place to send the request. However, he no longer works for the comptroller’s office, so I would need to submit a new request to someone else who does.

I’m pretty sure he didn't need five days to remember where he works. And he didn't need to make me resubmit my FOIA request—he could have just forwarded it to the new FOIA contact himself. Instead, he met the minimum requirements of state law while also making the process of requesting information as difficult as possible.

Still, I did as he asked.

Yesterday, after five more days had passed, I received a letter informing me that the comptroller's office doesn't have the information either. But I'm welcome to submit my request to the city's water department—and then wait five more days for a response.

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