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Rahm's Fake Transparency

"If I see another story about how Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration is the most transparent government Chicago's ever seen, I may bang my head against my desk," Megan Cottrell writes for the Chicago Reporter.

"Yes, the mayor has put up some public data on the web. That's useful and great. But if you ask most reporters if they've seen a change in the way the city answers questions or gives out data, the answer is no. When it comes to answering real questions or giving us information that we need, it still takes ridiculously long to get an answer."

Cottrell is right, as was Mick Dumke earlier this month when he wrote a two-part examination of Rahm's fake transparency.

The crux of the problem is that "transparency" per se has very little to do with journalism. Transparency is a data-geek word. Public officials like Rahm who are obsessed with metrics also love the idea of putting data out to the public to show that they are, um, into data and you should be too. Techies are often obsessed with data because it gives them something to invent applications around, like giving Play-Doh to kids. Too often, they mistake the results for journalism.

Reporters are taught that numbers alone are meaningless. If the city suffered 400 homicides last year, that doesn't tell us much without knowing how many the city has suffered in previous years; how that measures up per capita; how that compares to other cities; how police manpower or strategy affected that total; and just who those 400 victims (and perpetrators) were. And how that compares to previous years, other cities, etc.

This is one of the chief problems of seeing EveryBlock as anything besides a raw tool for reporters rather than something useful for citizens (as it was originally touted; now it's shifted into social media mode filled with restaurant reviews and daily deals near you). It's nice to know that five assaults were reported in my neighborhood last week, but what does that really tell me? How many were legitimate complaints? Were they all thought to be by the same assailant? Is this an unusually high - or low - number of assaults? Is there a reason assaults are on the increase - or decrease - in my neighborhood this time of year? How does this compare to previous years? To other neighborhoods? Etc.

You need a reporter to find out and make data meaningful to you. And by that, I mean a real reporter whose experience and training gives them a head start on how to really read a police report, what questions to really ask the cops, and an institutional knowledge of trends and policing strategies or the training to know how to get (and decipher) them.

Often this means asking for public documents and data from the city. Often (too often) this requires a Freedom of Information request. This is where "transparency" really happens, not access to raw data public officials want to put before the public.

Rahm's Way
Richard M. Daley openly scorned journalists and the media in a ham-handed, cynical way. His understanding of journalism was seemingly limited; he could grasp Fran Spielman's methods of trying to goad him into a simple statement she could build a crappy story around (Mayor says he's "concerned" about recent event!), but he never truly seemed to understand the mindset of reporters who weren't interested in mere cheerleading beyond the notion that their purpose was to sell papers.

Rahm is different. He knows exactly how the media works - he's spent decades both formally and informally putting that insight to use flattering, cajoling and threatening reporters to shape the news to his liking - with no regard to actual truth. It's a cynicism born of knowing, instead of Daley's cynicism born of ignorance.

Rahm might be more dangerous; his city will be locked down at least as much, if rnot more than his predeccessor. Rahm is a control freak who is obsessed with the media. And his pathological competitiveness means he wants to win every encounter. Daley showed at least a sliver of ability to roll with the punches, as if that was simply part of the game.

Rahm's Lockdown
Cottrell's complaint is borne of the news that Rahm is considering thinning the ranks of the city's public relations workers. Her theory is that this will make it even harder for reporters to get the information they need. That's possible, but I always applaud thinning the ranks of paid propagandists. We should be able to talk to the public workers without intermediaries. Or at least FOIA officers who are truly there to help - perhaps not even hired and fired by the city. (Not that I think this is Rahm's objective; just sayin'.)

This isn't just inside baseball - or just for journalists. The vast number of FOIA requests are made by lawyers, but FOIA is also a tool for citizens. You don't have to be a journalist to qualify for open records or public meetings. (It reminds me of a time at the Polk County Jail in Florida on my daily rounds as a police reporter when a new officer asked if I was a reporter before handing over the day's intake reports. "It doesn't matter if I am or not," I argued, "these are public records." Too many public officials and workers still don't get that. And by the way, can we please hold annual training for all government workers in public records laws?)

I suspect Rahm's move against the city's PR army is truly a budgetary move, but at the same time the effect will likely be to centralize the dispensing of information to reporters, so on the larger point Cottrell is right. This is the sort of thing transparency advocates should be arguing about, instead of gleefully expressing their gratitude to Rahm for the latest data set put online.

And Rahm's lockdown is only gonna get worse.

Police State
"Back in June, one day after President Obama announced the NATO/G8 summits for next year, Joe Iosbaker of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), an affiliate of CANG8, submitted permit applications to assemble at Daley Plaza for two dates of family friendly rallies in May," the Coalition Against the NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8) said this week. "After not communicating to Iosbaker for 20 weeks, MB Real Estate Services, which manages Daley Plaza, sent an email that stated that they are not approving any permits for Daley Plaza for the publicized dates of the NATO/G8 meetings.

"MB Real Estate is a contractor working for the PBC, which controls Daley Plaza. The Chairman of PBC is Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The blanket denial of permits for Daley Plaza - one of the few public spaces in downtown Chicago that can accommodate large gatherings - illustrates a pattern of actions demonstrating contempt for First Amendment rights by the Emanuel administration and its allies."

This is on top of Rahm now wanting unlimited authority to spend money on the summit while raising fines for those arrested while protesting during it.

The perverted truth is this: Rahm wants to know everything you are doing and levy fines for not doing it right (add speed cameras to the list) while denying you the ability to know what he's doing. He only wants you to believe the outcome of his actions will be for your good - and that he's done it for you, not himself or his political prospects. It's bizarre that so many of our public officials have no clear philosophy on the transparency of democracy except that they don't want it. They just want the power. They don't want to be questioned - how dare you! - or discussed or do their jobs as moderators of public discussion of issues by which they take in information and make a plan. They want subservience.

This Is Transparency?
"Mayor Rahm Emanuel has denied requests for public records that might shed light on his decisions to raise vehicle fees and water rates and to legalize speeding camera tickets that could hit drivers with $100 fines," the Tribune reported in November.

"It's the latest in a pattern of records denials from the mayor, who proclaimed a new commitment to transparency at City Hall under his leadership."

As I recounted at the time, the Tribune sought the records in part because it found in case after case that the arguments Rahm used for high-profile policy-making simply did not hold up under scrutiny of the facts.

Unfortunately, Rahm's resistance to truly transparent government extends a long tradition of lawbreaking in Chicago that is often enabled by a feeble media. (Kudos, then, to the Tribune for publicizing its stymied efforts; it is indeed news. The Trib has also sued the city in the past for broad denial of FOIA requests; more of that, please.)

And memo to Lisa Madigan: Your public access office has turned into a joke. Why don't you take time out from battling wayward sauna companies and auto parts dealers to make the protection of our democracy your top priority and lead the charge for creating the best public access laws in the country while increasing penalties - like Rahm, ahem - for failing to abide by those laws.

And it's not just City Hall proper that needs a good scrubbing, it's the Chicago Public Schools administration and, particularly, the Chicago Police Department, whose obfuscation I am intimately familiar with, as are many others in town.

In early December, for example, the BGA filed suit against the CPD, which is really being run by noted police superintendent Rahm Emanuel these days. Let's take a look at what happened to them.

"Chicago is divided into 25 police districts that traditionally have several tactical units comprised of officers who often are plainclothes, operating in unmarked squad cars and focusing on, among other things, guns, gangs and drugs," the BGA said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

"The BGA heard anecdotally that, in recent years, the tactical units have often been assigned outside their home districts, sometimes for prolonged periods.

"Hoping to learn more about such deployments - whether public safety was being served, and whether tax dollars were being spent wisely - the BGA asked the Chicago Police Department in June for deployment data covering the first five months of 2011. The BGA made this request while citing the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law guaranteeing public access to all public documents, with limited exemptions.

"The police department indicated that the BGA's request was 'unduly burdensome' because of the number of documents that would have to be located and reviewed, and asked the BGA to scale back the time frame.

"The BGA complied, limiting the request to deployment figures for a two-week period in the spring.

"The police department then denied the BGA's request, saying that releasing such information would 'undermine the effectiveness of the City's security measures as well as jeopardize the safety of the personnel designated to implement these measures.'

"Before and after these requests, the BGA approached aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel - who oversees the police department - for help in obtaining the requested data and avoiding litigation. But phone calls and emails went unreturned."

So thanks for your "data portal," Rahm. But can we ask you a few questions, now?

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on December 15, 2011


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