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Technology for Transparency

Can Miguel del Valle bring the city clerk's office into the computer age?



When Barack Obama started his new gig last month, his aides were floored to find themselves in a technological time warp. The Bush White House, it seems, had been stuck in the early 2000s—no IM, no Facebook—and Obama's staffers were expected to get to work without laptops or Blackberrys.

Chicago city clerk Miguel del Valle would love to have that problem.

The clerk's office, which employs about 120 people, has two primary responsibilities: issuing city licenses and vehicle stickers and keeping the official records of the City Council. Del Valle was appointed to the job by Mayor Daley in December 2006, to replace James Laski, who'd resigned after being charged with corruption. He was taken aback to discover that his new office was still equipped with electric typewriters.

Almost no council records were available online, so anyone wanting to research or monitor legislation—including aldermen and their staffs—would have to figure out what day it came before the council, then dig up paper copies of that meeting's journal.

The council may not be known for robust debate, but all those aye votes do yield a staggering amount of paperwork. Each month aldermen consider hundreds of pieces of legislation on matters big and small, from backing the city's Olympics bid with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to authorizing new parking restrictions on one block of a residential street. The journal of proceedings for the council's December 17 meeting, for instance, runs more than 2,000 pages; legislation that was simply introduced to council committees for later consideration ran another 16,000 pages.

When he ran for election to the office in 2007, del Valle promised to modernize it and bring transparency to council business. In the two years since then, he and his staff have made some strides—all of the council journals since 1981 are now available and searchable on the Web as PDFs, along with committee meeting notices and agendas. But the office still generates more than a million pieces of paper each month, and there's no way to track legislation by subject, to see the progress of a proposal through the legislative process, or to follow the legislative activities of a particular alderman. Del Valle hopes the office, which has an annual budget just under $10 million, will receive a grant from the city in the next few weeks to implement a new document management system.

I recently sat down for a talk about transparency and city politics with del Valle and two of his top aides—Jay Rowell, who's overseen the modernization efforts, and Monica Carranza, who heads the office's City Council division.

How and why did you start putting more City Council information online?

Del Valle: I was in the Illinois General Assembly for 20 years, and I was very much used to being able to look up the status of a bill, to be able to determine when it was filed, when it became a public act, and everything in between, all the amendments in between, having access to all the dates. So when I came here, I assumed I would find a system in place that was similar. And I didn't.

Rowell: I think we were both really shocked at how antiquated things were—I mean, half the desks in the City Council division had typewriters last year.

Del Valle: The city has what's called the ITG Board—the Information Technology Governing Board. And it's a board that has a representation on it from the IT arm of the city, the budget office, and some other people. And every year in the budget there's a pot of money that's used for IT purposes. Even though my office is an elected office, we have to go before that board and make our case for funding.

It was soon after I arrived that a planning grant for $75,000 was made available. We got a second piece of funding that we used for high-speed scanners and software. We were able to put all the council journals since 1981 online. Next we'd like to get to all the executive orders and budgets up. We're going back now to request money for a document management system. It's already been partially funded; it costs about $750,000 total, and we need $600,000 more.

And for the record, we didn't add jobs to do this—we took existing vacancies and changed the titles and changed the functions of the positions.

How does the process of documenting and tracking council business work in your office right now?

Carranza: Right now, when documents are transferred to us from committees, we literally have boxes of paper on the council floor. We could post things immediately with a new system—real-time posting. We also want a more tailored system so that you could search the site by alderman, ordinance name, even the name of the street that's involved. With this kind of a system we should also be able to reduce the amount of paper we use and our copy costs.

Rowell: There are about 1,500 ordinances introduced each meeting. Every little thing is a separate ordinance—parking restrictions, business street signs. Right now when an ordinance is introduced someone prints it out and people here literally retype them.

Carranza: We've requested that the aldermen e-mail us the ordinance, but it's in the municipal code that they have to give us three [paper] copies of it.

Del Valle: That's the delicate part of this—to get people to see this is in their best interests. I'm very up-front about this—you can't come in here and tell them, 'This is the way it's going to be done.' You have to show them it's in their best interest.

I've heard that some aldermen have been resistant to your efforts at providing transparency to things like committee meeting schedules and agendas and legislation.

Carranza: Actually, most of the reactions have been, 'Where have you been?' Some chairmen of committees have said that other aldermen call them and ask, 'Did this item pass?'

Rowell: At first, there was some resistance to change. But think about it—if they want to do legislative research, it's as much like looking for a needle in a haystack for them as it is for anybody else. And most people who use that material work for other city departments. So most aldermen have been very helpful; others have legitimate concerns.

Like what?

Rowell: Well, an e-mailed document could be manipulated. The way to go is the document management system. That way, someone types up the ordinance and it gets a bar code that can be scanned.

If you get the money for your system this year, when would it be in place?

Carranza: We want to have everything up and running by next year's budget. We hope by then people are already using it.

A little while back you started a live online broadcast of full City Council meetings. It's great if you're at your computer and able to follow along at the time—but if you miss the meeting, there's no way to go back and watch or listen. Have you given any consideration to posting video archives of the meetings?

Del Valle: Down the road, it may happen. But the City Council establishes the rules, and they'd have to be amended to allow us to do that.

What about posting audio recordings of committee meetings? I know they're all recorded already, so why not put them online?

Del Valle: I'd like to do that, but we're not there yet. I don't think it's practical for every single one, but I think it's something the aldermen are going to have to consider. Look, it was a major accomplishment to put the [broadcasts of full] council meetings online. As far as I'm concerned, though, the more information we can provide to the public, the better.

Mr. Del Valle, before taking this post, you had a respected career going as a progressive, policy-minded state senator. Why did you give it up to come work under Mayor Daley?

Del Valle: I reached the point after 20 years in Springfield where I thought I'd done as much as I could. I thought, OK, I can move onto another challenge. And I wanted to be home in Chicago.

There are only three citywide posts, and the clerk's office became vacant. I feel like it's important to make government work better. I've been involved in constituent services a long time, and to this day it frustrates me when I see the inability of government to provide services in an efficient manner.

But what about Mayor Daley? Were you concerned that he wasn't interested in opening up government? Have you had any flak from him since you took the job?

Del Valle: When Rich Daley was first elected state's attorney [in 1980], I worked with him on legislation. I had a history of working with him on legislative matters. The mayor, when he first talked to me about this office, expressed an appreciation for the way I had approached issues in the General Assembly. And because of my background, he knew I wasn't the type to take orders.

The way I read this is that the mayor wanted the office to be put back on track. This was one headache he wanted to get rid of. The timing was good for him and it was good for me. It has been a very positive working relationship.

Since coming here, I've made a lot of decisions, including bringing in staff, bringing in new systems, dealing with City Council, and not once has the mayor interfered, not once has the mayor questioned any of it, not once has the mayor called and complained. The mayor has not interfered—not even indirectly. I consider that a compliment. Knowing the mayor as I do, if something were to go wrong in his view, I'd probably hear from him.

But I'm sure you've seen some things happen in a way you don't like. You mentioned the parking-meter lease deal—that whole thing went down in just a couple days. You don't have something to say about that?

Del Valle: When I came here, I decided from the very beginning that I would not be dragged into conflicts, battles, or differences of opinion between the mayor and the aldermen, and I would not take positions on matters pending before the City Council. My job is to document their work—not to publicly criticize their work.

The integrity of the process is everything. For the sake of this discussion—and it's never happened—if an alderman called me after a council meeting and said, I want to change my vote: no way.

You said you don't get involved in the politics of the City Council, but I saw you at a rally last year for Joe Moore's reelection campaign. Alderman Moore had just been in a very public battle with the mayor over the big-box minimum-wage ordinance—and you were there endorsing him.

Del Valle: I have to talk about some issues that are important to me. You didn't hear me at that rally talking about the mayor—you heard me talking about issues.

Last year a report on government efficiency concluded that some of your office's duties could be absorbed by the city administration. That was widely interpreted as a suggestion to eliminate the office and your post altogether.

Del Valle: In Springfield and at other levels of government, there is a system of checks and balances. There isn't the same system in place here. That is why we need the clerk's office. About 50 percent of the city clerks in the state are appointed. If you had two political parties involved here, the two parties might make sure there are checks and balances. But in a city like Chicago, maybe it's best that we're elected. Would it work if we got rid of the office and the elected position? It might work—if we had safeguards.v

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