Saturday, May 15, 2010

How open is Chicago city government?

As much as I am a reporter-type at heart who views elected officials at all levels of government with a certain suspicion (how honest are they being when they speak to me?), I can’t say I have much of a hangup over the fact that Chicago city officials appear to be trying to undermine the whole concept of Freedom of Information Act requests.

City officials this week showed off the changes they have made to the official website of Chicago municipal government – and one of the new features will be lists of every single entity that files an FOIA request, along with an explanation of what type of information they wanted.

THERE ARE THOSE who think this is a shot at the working news media, as some reporters are enamored of the concept of filing FOIA requests so as to dig up city documents that might provide tidbits of information that are newsworthy.

By that logic, city officials are essentially trying to undermine reporter-types by exposing what issues we’re interested in – before we actually get any information.

These people seem to think that city editors and broadcast producers will start turning to the city website to see the latest additions to the list, so as to figure out what the “competition” is working on. No More Scoops!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That is a little bit too hysterical to take seriously (probably an overly-caffeinated assignment editor), and not just because I was never the type of reporter who got all worked up over filing FOIA requests (preferring to work potential “sources” for information that could be newsworthy – while also trying to keep in mind that those sources may try selectively feeding me information to make themselves look good).

THE CHICAGO SUN-Times went so far this week as to publish an editorial saying that reporters may even start making overly broad FOIA requests for information so as to make it more difficult for any third party to figure out what they are working on before it is published.

The only problem with that logic is that an overly-broad FOIA request invariably gets rejected on the grounds that officials need to pare down their request for data so as to make it relevant.

I don’t think city officials are trying to blow a reporter-type’s news scoop. I think if anything, they’re trying to distract attention from the fact that they’re going out of their way to avoid having to give any information through the Freedom of Information Act.

The law meant to make it possible for regular people to get certain information about the way their governments operate was always a bit vague, so much so that many governments (particularly in smaller towns) didn’t have set procedures for how to deal with an FOIA request for documents.

THAT OFTEN MEANT many local officials refused to give out such information on the grounds that they did not think they were legally obligated to do so. It was the ultimate passing of the buck. Everybody would claim that information distribution was some other official’s problem.

That was the real significance of the amendments made to the Freedom of Information Act in Illinois. Approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn last year with significant input from the Illinois attorney general’s office, one of the provisions was that every government entity had to specify a certain official who was responsible for processing FOIA requests.

Which means that passing the buck was no longer possible. Also, the amount of time during which a response to such requests had to be made was shortened. Is it any wonder that many local government officials spent this spring lobbying the Illinois Legislature to change the law back to something resembling its previous incarnation? I see the Chicago city action as little more than legalistic harassment until they can go back to stonewalling such requests.

But I don’t get too bothered because I realize that all that is being posted on the website is a list of who is filing the FOIA request. The actual information they provide to someone does not get posted. Although in many cases, I would guess that the reasons they use to justify holding off on providing information will never be publicly published.

CITY OFFICIALS ARE trying to make it look as though they are responding to requests, when the reality is likely to be the usual stonewalling (trying to find any legalistic reasons to avoid giving out certain information until it is so old as to be virtually irrelevant).

Besides, when I went to the city website on Friday to check out these lists myself, I found that most of them (each city agency has its own space for indicating FOIA requests related to each agency) were blank. Does this mean that the actual task of regularly updating the city website to include current FOIA requests is beyond the interest of city officials?

If that is the case, then reporter-types probably don’t have much to worry about. Mayor Richard M. Daley may even be accurate when he says the posting of FOIA requests adds to the “transparency” of city government.

This shows just how lazy some of our municipal employees can truly be when it comes to keeping up with the duties of their jobs, kind of like the “old days” when Walter Jacobson’s “Perspectives” would give us stories about Streets and Sanitation workers sleeping on the job, rather than picking up trash.


EDITOR’S NOTE: I am less offended by the idea of city officials making public who is requesting information via the Freedom of Information Act than I am the idea that the City Council wants to hire an inspector general to investigate itself, but only under such restrictions that it is unlikely that investigator would dig up anything worth knowing.

1 comment:

Monroe Anderson said...

Back during my brief stint in city government, the tactic was to stall as long as possible if it was information you didn't want out. This new approach may prove to be more effective--it's definitely more sinister.