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Good Government/Reform Mon Jun 06 2011

"This is about trying to get information from my city government as a citizen and journalist": The Reader's Mick Dumke on His Lawsuit Against the City

Richard M. is now former Mayor Daley, hopefully moving on to projects that might challenge him a bit more than this softball governing-the-country's-third-largest-city stuff. Mayor Emanuel inherits more than a few challenges from the Daley era-one of which is a lawsuit filed in the final months of Daley's tenure as mayor by ace investigative journalist Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader. Repeatedly stymied in his attempts to glean information from the city through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Dumke took the issue to the courts, filing suit against the city claiming that their reasons for denying his requests don't hold any water.

Gapers Block recently spoke with Dumke via phone to discuss the suit, the city's apparently archaic technology, and transparency under the new mayor.

Gapers Block: What's your take on the city's reasons for denying your FOIA requests?

Mick Dumke: The city gave me two reasons for denying my requests. I find them both to be false. The first was that six months worth of the mayor's schedule would pose a security threat, because it could help establish patterns in his coming and going. To which I reply, everyone knows the building and floor where the mayor works. It's preposterous to me that giving the schedule of people he's meeting with in this office would somehow imperil him beyond the information that's already widely known. That, to me, was ridiculous.

More to the point, it's a misapplication of the FOIA. There are some security exceptions to the FOIA, but that's for information we would request about planning for terrorist attacks. It has nothing to do with protecting the coming and going or meeting schedule of an elected official. The attorney general sided with me on that argument.

The second issue was the city's claim that my request was "burdensome." This really came down to what form the mayor's schedule is kept in. I went back and forth with city officials, including the corporation counsel herself. She told me they did not keep the mayor's schedule in electronic format--which I could not believe, because the mayor's press office sends out a daily e-mail with a list of his public events. They also have a voicemail recording of his public events.

Essentially, what that meant to me was that half of his schedule, the public part, was in electronic format; the other half, they typed up on a typewriter. This clearly was not the case.

Now, they've come out and said that they have it in a word processing file that is not sortable. I'd like to know what sort of word processing file isn't searchable and sortable. For the last 20 years, all the word processing files I've worked on have had that

GB: And if it's not sortable, how does it function as a workable schedule?

MD: Exactly. There's clearly a template in place for how they type up the events. This is relevant because, along the way, I had to propose a compromise that they would only give me the dates and names of people he met with in his office--no extraneous stuff like the stage directions of how he would enter an event. And said they couldn't do that because it would take too long.

GB: The city's claim about a concern with establishing they mayors comings and goings makes me think about the first chapter of Mike Royko's Boss, detailing the senior Daley's every move down to the minute throughout the day. Everyone has a general idea about where the mayor is throughout the day.

MD: It appears that they simply don't want to set a precedent for making this information public, in any comprehensive way--even in a limited way. They'll give a snapshot, sure, because they know they can't fight every single one of these, when there is a law backing up these requests for information. The fact is we do want to establish patterns--it's not the patterns they're talking about, but we want to see who he's meeting with. I don't think that's an unreasonable thing to ask.

GB: You file a lot of FOIAs against the city. In general, what's your impression of how they usually handle these requests? Do they overzealously redact documents? Do they respond to things in a timely manner?

MD: It varies widely. In some cases, they are very zealous--one could argue overzealous--in redacting information. I've asked for certain police reports and received three sheets of paper with 80 percent of each page blacked out. It's almost funny to look at.

There are certain FOIA officers who are very helpful and give information quickly; who you can sit and talk with and say, "Okay, you don't have time to do it in the five-day period, that's fine--how much time do you need? What's reasonable? If I'm asking for something that's too burdensome, is there something else I can ask for that would give me the same information?" So there are a number of people in the city who are very reasonable and helpful. But, perhaps not surprisingly, I think the closer you get to the mayor, the harder it is to get good, solid, data about what's going on.

The two main points to the suit are the mayor's schedule, request in 2010 for 2008 homicide data. I figured there would be more data, more cases closed. The attorney general basically ruled in my favor on every part of that request. The police gave a couple reasons why I couldn't have that information: initially, they said it would violate
the privacy of the victims. Which struck me as strange, since the victims are dead. And the names are reported by the medical examiner's office, after the date of the homicide. So it was ridiculous on a number of levels why there would be a privacy concern.

So the attorney general ruled in my favor. But when the CPD received noticed from the attorney general office, they said, too bad. We're not giving it to you because we don't keep the information in a format that you're asking for. I wanted it in an electronic format that gave the status of these homicides. I had a long series of exchanges with the department, but they again claimed that because of antiquated technology they don't keep the information in any central database. Which I'm pretty sure is not true.

GB: You filed this lawsuit near the end of Mayor Daley's tenure.

MD: Yes. It was against Daley in his official capacity, as an administration, not as an individual. To me the timing makes it doubly important, to make sure we are pushing forward on issues of transparency and accountability in the government as a new administration is coming in. As a campaigner, Rahm Emanuel made all sorts of promises about how he's going to reform city government, including by making it more transparent. So what better way for him to put his money where his mouth is than to follow through on something like this? Moreover, when he was chief of staff to President Obama, his meeting log at the White House was posted online. So there's a precedent for Emanuel doing this. It's important to see how he and his administration are going to proceed with this.

Obviously, I prefer not to be in court. I prefer to have the information. I prefer not to go through the FOIA process. If they would just put the information online, or provide it to me and anyone who asks, they could avoid all this trouble.

GB: Do you think you're going to have to do things like this against Emanuel in the future?

MD: This isn't about any kind of personal animus. It's about trying to get information from my city government as a citizen and journalist. I don't know what to anticipate from Rahm Emanuel--I'm certainly going to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd love it if he came out tomorrow and said, we're going to make all this stuff available. To me, there's no reason to think that he's not going to follow through on his promises to make the government more transparent. But, on the other hand, we're going to be watching. That's our job as reporters.

GB: What needs to change in the way the city handles FOIAs?

MD: You can avoid the FOIA process by posting more information online. The whole "burdensome" argument can be undercut if the city is a little more thoughtful about its use of technology. A lot of this should be in an electronic format. Two years ago, Scott Waguespack and Manny Florez got through city council an ordinance that requires the city to post all sorts of information about tax increment financing online. As far as I can tell, a lot of that information still isn't online, and a lot of what is there is in the form of very cumbersome documents--PDFs, stuff that isn't searchable. You have to download it and it takes a lot of time. This says one of two things to me: either the city isn't interested in making this truly accessible and easily searchable for citizens, or it isn't using modern technology to keep these records. So I think what can be done is an upgrade in technology about sharing stuff with the public to help us follow our own money.

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