Rahm Emanuel and Chicago City Government Transparency

Igor Studenkov, Senior Staff Writer

When he campaigned for mayor, Rahm Emanuel promised that his government would be transparent and accountable. Every mayoral candidate since the Jane Byrne has promised something similar – only a few actually followed through. The real test would come once he assumed power. Seven months into his term, it is clear that while Emanuel deserves some credit for taking some steps toward increasing transparency, he still has a long way before Chicago city government could be transparent in any meaningful way.

First, let us examine what Emanuel did right. He established a data portal that published over 200 “data sets” that included information on community area crime rates, city employee salaries, and lobbyist disclosures and abandoned buildings, among other things. In the past, much of that information was either hidden from the public completely or deliberately obscured. Granted, the way this data is formatted isn’t exactly conductive to easy comprehension, but the very fact that this data is available at all is very commendable.

The problem is that Emanuel still insists on keeping certain information private. For example, the Emanuel administration maintained its predecessor’s policy of keeping police deployment data secret. CPD Superintendant Garry McCarthy argued that doing so will put his officers in danger. The point became moot this October, when an anonymous source within CPD turned most of last year’s deployment over to the Chicago News Cooperative. The data confirmed something which many Chicagoans have long since suspected – that CPD did not deploy enough officers in the city’s high-crime neighborhoods. Since then, Emanuel hasn’t made this year’s deployment data available to the public, nor has he released any data that might fill any gaps in the leaked data set.

A few days later, Chicago Reader did a cover story on Emanuel’s daily meeting schedule. The article pointed out, Emanuel’s former boss, President Obama, ensured that his meeting schedule was readily accessible on the White House website. Meanwhile, Emanuel’s staff refused to release the mayor’s schedule until the Reader sent a Freedom of Information request and followed up on their request for weeks until the staff finally relented. The released information revealed a pattern of Emanuel devoting a significant portion of his schedule to meeting bankers and other potential investors. It also showed that Emanuel spent less time on government-related meetings than Mayor Daley. The data the Reader was able to obtain was far from complete, and Emanuel has made no effort to release anything more.

In November 4, 2011, Emanuel met with World Business Chicago, a group of local business leader the mayor handpicked to develop the city-wide job plan and shoulder the hosting duties for the upcoming G-8 and NATO summits. The meeting’s location was kept secret until it was well underway, and the press wasn’t allowed to attend any part of it. During this meeting, the group passed several resolutions that would disclose donors list, financial statements and meeting minutes – but only the portions that they would deem “not sensitive.” And while the members would be required to disclose conflicts of interest to each other, they would not have to disclose anything publicly.

Most recently, the Chicago Tribune published a story detailing its effort to obtain information on the research Emanuel used to justify the increase in vehicle fees and water rates. Those increases were among the most contentious part his budget. The article detailed how the few bits of information Emanuel released weren’t particularly useful, and how he refused to release anything beyond that. His justification? It would take too long and wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

All of this reveals a pattern of Emanuel withholding data that might be politically sensitive or personally embarrassing. He wouldn’t be the first politician to feel that way. However, any promise of transparency has little meaning if the mayor and his staff can decide what they get to be transparent about. So, until this pattern chances, any assurance of transparency must be taken with the grain of salt.