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Shaw: City Hall ‘allergic as ever’ to transparency

The fatal shooting in 2014 of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was caught on dashcam video that was released after a local journalist won a court battle. | File photo

So many public officials, so much secrecy — where to begin?

How about the Laquan McDonald shooting video, reluctantly released by the city of Chicago in response to a court order a year ago?

The fallout: One police officer charged with murder, cops who covered up for him facing a new criminal investigation, a politically wounded Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledging a “code of silence” in the department and federal officials conducting a wide-ranging civil rights investigation.

OPINION

The mayor’s task force noted the disciplinary system has been “plagued by serious structural and procedural flaws that make real accountability nearly impossible.” The City Council has approved some reforms, but many community leaders believe it’s more show than substance.

One thing remains the same: Without a nudge from a judge, City Hall’s as allergic as ever to transparency.

When we requested reports and videos earlier this year on every fatal police shooting of a civilian since 2010, CPD refused, invoking an exception to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by claiming too much work and not enough public interest.

Fortunately, Cook County Judge Kathleen Kennedy affirmed what most of us already knew — this epitomizes a public interest request — and she ordered CPD to release all the material over the next six months.

We’ll be talking about all of this Monday evening at a Better Governor Association “Idea Forum” entitled, “Laquan’s Legacy: Police Reform in Chicago.”

Sadly, stonewalling goes far beyond CPD. We’re still fighting for release of emails on the mayor’s “private” account that relate to public business and official duties.

The city seems to think that, despite the devastating fallout from Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, public officials can circumvent FOIA by using private accounts for government work.

The city’s outside lawyers have been spending gobs of time — presumably at public expense — fighting us on this. Fortunately, another Cook County Judge, Sophia Hall, agreed that private emails don’t automatically fall outside FOIA, but the city still refuses to do the right thing by turning over the appropriate emails.

We’re not asking for Mayor Emanuel’s personal correspondence, but when government officials do public business on our dime, we have to be able to hold them accountable.

I wish CPD and City Hall were outliers in the transparency battle, but dozens of government agencies are equally opaque. And we end up taking them to court, along with a troubling new category of obfuscation: Public bodies “privatizing” their functions and arguing FOIA no longer applies to them.

Recent examples include McPier, which owns Navy Pier, and school districts that cede regulation of high school sports to the Illinois High School Association.

The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to review our IHSA case, and we’re confident the justices will issue a broad privatization ruling that ensures continued transparency. Our McPier lawsuit is moving toward a trial early next year.

As we approach the first anniversary of the release of the Laquan McDonald video, let’s remember the main reason we’re discussing police reform is because an independent journalist won a court battle for it.

We have relatively strong transparency laws in Illinois, but too many public officials refuse to follow them, in part because they can fight us with your tax dollars — it’s not their money — and the consequences of stonewalling are minimal.

Lawmakers need to be revisit those disconnects, but in the meantime we’ll fight on, and hopefully judges and citizens who support open government will keep reminding public officials to do their jobs and let the sunshine in.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga