On one point all sides agree: over 15 months ago a coalition of northwest- and southwest-side activists asked Cook County officials for computer tapes on which are recorded the tax assessments on every piece of property in the county.
Since then the activists, representing a group called the Institute for Community Empowerment, have called, cajoled, and pleaded. Still the county has not officially responded to their request.
As a result, the activists accuse the Cook County Board of Commissioners of stonewalling in order to hide incriminating evidence of unfair tax policies.
The politicians insist that, no, it's all a horrible misunderstanding and a case of bad timing. If the activists would only be a little more patient and wait a little longer, the tapes will be theirs, at least in a month or two. "I anticipate they [the institute] will probably get what they want," says Andrea Brands, spokeswoman for County Board president John Stroger. "They submitted their request at a time when things were crazy with other matters."
But the institute, long past patience, has filed suit. "We have the right to this stuff," says Jerry Brozek, the institute's lawyer. "And since they won't release it, we're going to court."
At issue are computer tapes from the county treasurer's, assessor's, and clerk's offices that generally sell for over $45,000. The institute wants the tapes for a nominal processing fee of about $500. "Each tape costs about $15,000," says Cheever Griffin, a spokesman for county assessor Thomas Hynes. "To obtain them requires approval by the Cook County Board. This is a way to bring revenue into county coffers."
Neither Griffin nor Brands nor anyone else in county government knows for certain how many tapes are sold each year. But on one thing everyone agrees: whoever owns them has access to valuable information. The tapes reveal the assessed value and recent sales price as well as up-to-date physical description of every piece of property in the county.
Developers might use the information to analyze neighborhoods and determine if they're ripe for investment. But even though there are at least two developers on the institute's board of trustees, Brozek says the group has no commercial interest in the tapes. Instead, they want to know which neighborhoods pay what in property taxes, so they can determine if, as they suspect, wealthy communities such as the Gold Coast are underassessed in relation to the bungalow belts. They also want to know how much the downtown is yielding in property taxes after years of tax breaks adopted to encourage development.
"There are all sorts of legitimate public policy issues that could be addressed by studying those tapes," says Jim Greer, an urbanologist and numbers cruncher working with the institute. "The issue of fairness is only one. You can also determine the long-range fiscal health of a community by studying how much the property is assessed and how much it sells for. If you're a community group and you want to get involved in planning issues, it behooves you to know this information. People can live in a neighborhood for 50 years and thump their chest and say, 'I know my neighborhood.' But you don't know everything without this information."
The institute first approached county officials in June 1994; in October they met with officials from Hynes's office and others from the office of Richard Phelan, then president of the County Board. The officials were skeptical, wanting to know, among other things, whether the institute was not a front for developers who wanted the tapes cheap.
Brozek showed officials the institute's not-for-profit statement, and pledged not to replicate the tapes or use them for commercial purposes.
In December, the institute's request was discussed at a full meeting of the County Board, where some commissioners expressed concerns about waiving the costs for such valuable information. The matter, it was decided, required further study by the board's finance committee, then headed by Stroger, as well as a legal opinion from the state's attorney.
Thus began weeks and weeks of delay, as Phelan was replaced as president by Stroger, and Commissioner John Daley (Mayor Daley's brother) replaced Stroger as the head of the finance committee.
"I talked informally with [a lawyer] for the president's office all the time," says Brozek. "She was always polite but she never had a concrete answer to our request. She always had to check out this thing or that thing. At one point she told us to see some guy named Gus in John Daley's office. I talked to Gus and he said, 'I just got this one. I don't know the answer.' It was frustrating."
The county lawyer, however, says it was inappropriate for Stroger to make a unilateral decision once the request was being studied by the finance committee. "I told Mr. Brozek that it was up to the board, not President Stroger," says the lawyer, who asked not to be identified. "President Stroger couldn't act on their request until the finance committee had. That's why I directed them to Gus."
It was not the sort of treatment to which the institute and its members were accustomed. This was an organization founded by members of the Southwest Neighborhood and Parish Federation and the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, two of the city's most influential community organizations. Their board of trustees was filled with high-powered personalities, such as former Illinois schools chief Michael Bakalis, developer Patrick Daly, radio talk show host Cliff Kelley, and businessman Alvin Robinson. In the early days of Harold Washington's tenure as mayor, every major white Democrat and Republican politician in the state (including a state's attorney named Rich Daley) kowtowed to the institute's key members, Jean Mayer, Joseph Crutchfield, and Joyce Zick, if only to undercut any opportunity Washington might have to build a following among white ethnics. Back then a call from Mayer drew Rich Daley's response, not "some guy named Gus in John Daley's office."
On March 24 the institute delivered an ultimatum in letters to Stroger and the County Board lawyer: turn over the tapes or we'll sue. "We have not taken formal action until now because we thought that it was in the County's rational self-interest to resolve this matter informally without generating publicity," Brozek wrote in his letter to the lawyer. "If our request is formally denied . . . we will have no choice but to file suit as a test case. We must then publicize the suit. We will ask newspapers, Illinois universities and colleges, and community groups to join us as parties-plaintiff."
In his letter to Stroger, Brozek said the group "WILL NOT use this data or its analysis thereof for commercial or profit making purposes. It DOES INTEND to make its analysis available to governmental officials, academics, the press, community groups and other interested persons."
Stroger did not respond to that letter. On May 12 Brozek wrote Stroger another letter, filing an official Freedom of Information Request for the tapes. Once again Stroger did not respond. On August 18 the institute filed its lawsuit, asking that the county "be enjoined from withholding the requested computer tapes."
At a press conference to publicize the suit, Mayer blasted the County Board for "flouting the law." She called commissioners "political mandarins" who represent a "petty aristocracy of elected officials . . .
"The elected officials [on the County Board] just don't get it," Mayer continued. "They must tell the people, for example, why high-priced homes and property in the Gold Coast are assessed at half the rate of neighborhood bungalows."
Of course Mayer has no way of knowing whether the Gold Coast is assessed at half the rate of the neighborhood bungalows. That's because she has not analyzed the information on the tapes. For all she knows, it's the other way around.
The rhetoric and the lawsuit have upset some commissioners, who say they will not be browbeaten into handing over valuable information. "I don't think anyone in the county did anything wrong," says Commissioner Maria Pappas. "I have a lot of questions. Who are these people? We don't want to just turn this over to anyone."
Ironically, the lawsuit may force the institute to wait even longer for the tapes. The state's attorney will have to respond; there will be legal hearings and delays. "This is a complicated matter because they [the institute] were asking for something that had never been asked for before," says Brands. "No one had ever received this information without paying the fee. Questions had to be answered. I understand the finance committee was going to discuss this at their next meeting. Now with the lawsuit I don't know when it will be resolved."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.