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Information Held Hostage

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Just a few lines about Neal Pollack's cover story about Mayor Richard Daley and open government [May 5]. It is well done and I commend your treatment of the issue, which is vital to the future of the city. However, the reply by mayoral chief of staff Gery Chico [Letters, May 12] is terribly disappointing. Mr. Chico claims the mayor has "respect" for all the people of Chicago and that "government [should] be as open and accountable . . . as possible." This mandate was clearly not met during the recent primary election. Mr. Chico's reply failed to address several key issues raised by the article. I'd like to finally clear the record on the administration on its treatment of FOIA.

We filed 38 Freedom of Information Act requests with the law department in an attempt to discern just how much money Mayor Daley and his council allies were willing to spend to deprive minorities of their share of city wards. This issue is currently being considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Our FOIA request dealt only with expenditure of tax money and was not related to personnel files and internal memos, which are exempt from coverage of FOIA. The request was filed on January 3, 1995, which gave the city plenty of time to respond before the February primary. The city did not respond within the seven day statutory period and subsequently denied our request for an accounting on February 9, 1995, three weeks after the seven day period. Ms. Nina Cadsawan, the department's FOIA officer, said the late response was caused because she "lost" or "misplaced" the FOIA request. According to Ms. Cadsawan, it was only a matter of coincidence that "losing" the request prevented disclosure before the primary election.

I strongly disagree. I believe this "loss" was motivated by a desire to protect the mayor from public embarrassment, since expenditure of taxpayer money on outside counsel in this case has drawn strong criticism from mayoral opponents, minority groups, and anti-administration aldermen in the City Council. I also believe Ms. Cadsawan's "loss" was fully intentional and malicious, since disclosure of these records would have been publicly embarrassing to the mayor, who has been trying to avoid being labeled as "unfair" to minorities.

We then filed another FOIA on February 16 and informed the administration that if it denied this request we would commence legal action. We were also prepared to hold a series of press conferences if a positive response wasn't forthcoming. Still, the administration failed to respond, and subsequently asked for an extension, which it then failed to meet in a timely manner. We then decided to get aggressive, because we felt we were getting a runaround.

We informed mayoral press secretary Jim Williams on March 9 that we were going to run a story about blockage of FOIA and file a lawsuit to seek access to the appropriate city records if we didn't receive the requested information by the next day. Apparently this tough approach paid off, because on March 10, the city's FOIA officer returned our call and agreed to provide us with many public records the city had all along. We were then able to publish a small article in our March issue about expenditure of city money on the ward remap case.

In conclusion, I frankly don't believe we would have received this public information if we hadn't started an aggressive campaign to get it. I also believe that neither Mayor Jane Byrne, Mayor Harold Washington and/or Mayor Eugene Sawyer would have denied our initial request. I do know that Harold Washington would have taken a dim view of city FOIA officers "losing" FOIA requests filed by legitimate news organizations. I do know that state and county officials (both Democratic and Republican) who received other FOIA requests from us have often provided full answers and documentation well within the statutory period. They have provided the information, even when it's not in their own political interest. In fact, Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch even gave us information which became detrimental to her own campaign last year on an FOIA request dealing with minority hiring. She did not even think of using obstructionism, delay, and denial, which is clearly evident in Mayor Daley's office. Ms. Netsch responded with complete records without any problem, well ahead of the seven day deadline.

Mr. Chico claims Mr. Pollack's article was "careless" and "incomplete." Perhaps this is so, but only because the article did not strictly address FOIA. Maybe Mr. Pollack can consider such a piece in the future. I firmly believe that such a thorough review of Mayor Daley and FOIA could turn up some interesting information, if he can get it. Good luck!!

Victor M. Crown

Assistant Editor

Illinois Politics Magazine

PS: One of our FOIAs asked for copies of other FOIA requests submitted during the last four years. The city has not yet responded to this request.

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