How transparent is Emanuel's city hall?

August 22, 2011

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(AP/File)
(Image courtesy of the City of Chicago)

This week, Rahm Emanuel marks his 100th day as Chicago's mayor. This is an artificial milestone - we know - but one Emanuel himself set before taking office, when he laid out some early goals.

Among the promises: making city hall more transparent than in the past. And there have been changes, but they haven't all been as dramatic as advertised.

An agenda with a touch of hyperbole

Emanuel made the promise during the campaign, in December, when he unveiled what he called his "ethics and good government agenda."

It aimed, Emanuel said, to "bring a level of transparency and accountability to the city government, reestablishing what I think is very important for the public, i.e. the taxpayers, with city government and those who serve in city government, a level of confidence in the way decisions are being made."

Emanuel was not the only candidate with a transparency agenda. You don't go far in politics by telling voters to "pay no attention" to what's going on behind "the curtain."

But he reinforced the open government agenda after he was elected, when he released his transition report, a first-term to-do list. The document said "transparency" seven times, and "transparent" eight times.

A whole lot of Emanuel's promises relate to making information available online. Information like, as of last week, the city had 3,337 rodent control requests not yet taken care of, or that - on average - residents are waiting 26 days to get new garbage cans.

These numbers are available on a transparency web page and a "data portal" that Emanuel's been touting, like in this statement, last week:

"For the first time, we made everybody's salary public. Today we're going to put online everybody's financial disclosure," Emanuel said.

A bold announcement, to be sure, but not as bold as you might think.

Salaries - while now on the city's website for the first time - have not been made "public" for the first time. In the past, they could be requested through the Freedom of Information Act. And financial disclosure forms for city employees were already available online; Mayor Daley did that last year.

Emanuel made his less-than-accurate pronouncement during a discussion hosted by the Better Government Association. It's one of several internet forums he's taken part in. Earlier this summer he participated in a Facebook town hall, which his administration said allowed him to "engage directly with people across Chicago."

An at-times tense media relationship

At least at this point, these new media events don't appear to be replacing the traditional press conferences mayors before him have held. In July, according to his public schedules, Emanuel took questions from reporters at more than a dozen events. And that doesn't include one-on-one interviews he did - though not all went well.

Emanuel - as I'm sure you know - does not shy from confrontation. Sometimes his responses to reporters’ questions carry more than a hint of condescension, and he will let reporters know when he feels they've crossed the line.

Last month, Mary Ann Ahern from NBC-5 Chicago pressed Emanuel about where he would send his children to school. With the camera off, things got tense, Ahern recalled on WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight.

"The mayor stood up and I stood up, and he stood about a half an inch from my face, and began pointing at me and yelling at me, and telling me to leave his children alone and how dare I," Ahern said.

Coincidence or not, a reporter from a rival TV station later that day reported a scoop: that Emanuel's kids would be attending the University of Chicago Lab School.

Emanuel's press operation is savvy, and at times, a bit too Washington, D.C. for Chicago reporters. Both his communications director and press secretary came from jobs in the Obama Administration.

Earlier this summer, the Emanuel team planned a "background" briefing - something common in Washington, but not so at City Hall - about last winter's blizzard response, in which no officials could be quoted directly. Reporters complained, and ended up getting their questions answered at an on-the-record press conference immediately following the briefing.

Aldermanic expectations

Transparency issues do not only arise from the media. Aldermen during the Daley Administration often complained they weren't getting their questions answered on big issues. 

So when Emanuel provided them information about why he picked a certain company to get a concessions contract at O'Hare, "a lot of aldermen had never seen so many documents before that were dumped out there," Ald. Scott Waguespack said on Eight Forty-Eight.

Waguespack said the Emanuel Administration has, in general, been more open than the Daley one.

"I think a lot of aldermen kind of looked at that, and said, 'Well, they've spoken to us, they've given us a lot of documents we've never seen before, more transparency than the last 20 years,'" Waguespack said. "But if you're missing the one page that you need, that's not transparency."

Waguespack claimed he didn't get all the answers he wanted about the O'Hare deal from that pile of documents, so he voted against it. Most of Waguespack's colleagues didn't agree with him. He was one of just three "no" votes.

A 'junk drawer' of information

Piles of government documents cover nearly every inch of Tim Novak's office. An investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Novak broke open the Hired Truck scandal in 2004 that led to the convictions of nearly 30 city employees.

This past year, he's written about how the police investigated a fight - involving a nephew of former Mayor Daley - that led to a death. Novak said that after a while, the Daley administration stopped answering his calls and his emails.

"The only thing they would respond to were [Freedom of Information Act requests]," Novak said.

He has had better luck with the Emanuel administration. Novak said he's been able to get interviews with police officials he never would've gotten when Daley was in charge.

"That being said, the police department seems to only respond to us when the mayor's office tells them to," Novak said.

Novak relies heavily on public documents for his investigations. So I asked him about all the data the Emanuel administration has put in its online "data portal" - lists of city contracts, lobbyist and budget details.

Novak said he does find the employee information helpful. But, as a whole, he equated the "portal" with "the junk drawer everyone has in their kitchen, where you can open that drawer and Lord knows what you might find in it, but it's not organized in any particular fashion."

That is not a universal opinion. The Emanuel administration describes the portal as "easy to use." And it is constantly being updated.

But Novak is a reporter not easily impressed. And here's the underlying issue: Transparency, he said, is a buzz word these days.

"And governments don't really want to be transparent, in my opinion," Novak said. "If they were transparent, they would put glass on the back room door, so you could see into the back room. They don't really want you to do that."

And that's one transparency promise Emanuel has not made.