Snowplows clean the streets. Cars whiz down Lake Shore Drive. Shoppers parade past the Water Tower. Garbage gets picked up and people play touch football in the park. Airplanes take off, boats sail on the lake. There are baseball stadiums and museums. It’s all set to peppy music and intercut with shots of Mayor Daley shaking hands, smiling, speaking in public. These are the opening credits of Chicago Works, the public-access cable show produced by the mayor’s press office. Chicago Works lasts a half hour and airs five times a day. There’s a new show every three weeks.
The show is hosted by Jim Williams, the mayor’s press secretary and a former City Hall reporter for WGN television. It’s followed by CrimeWatch ’95, produced by the Chicago Police Department and hosted by Peter Karl, formerly an investigative reporter for Channel Five. Williams says Chicago Works was one of his first priorities when he took over the press office in 1992 because he felt television news wasn’t giving city programs enough attention. “When I got here I decided it was not enough just to put out press releases and hold press conferences, that you had to find a way to communicate with people directly,” he says. “There are an awful lot of things we announce that the public should know but they never hear about, because they never make it on the television newscasts.”
In the world of Chicago Works, Mayor Daley is a benevolent uncle presiding over an efficient and profitable municipality that provides an endless array of services to a grateful public. Daley is rarely seen on the show, but his name is invoked often. A March show, for example, featured a segment on midnight basketball as “yet another example of the public-private partnerships Mayor Daley would like to see more of.” Other segments included Daley announcing a program that provides tickets to special events for poor children who exhibit “good behavior,” a feature on the city’s Commission on Animal Care and Control, and a profile of a coordinator of the WinterBreak Festival. This is all fairly innocuous stuff, and the show could easily be brushed off were it not for segments like the March show’s lead story. Ostensibly about the convention business in Chicago, the segment was actually a five-minute advertisement for McCormick Place and Navy Pier. After all, Williams intoned, convention business is “business our city can’t afford to miss.” The two developments were advertised as key weapons in a fight for convention money against other cities. “In order to win the battle, Chicago must stay competitive,” Williams said. He added, “Each year, our conventions and tourism business pumps hundreds of millions of dollars a year into our city’s economy,” and the camera showed two middle-aged men in khaki raincoats slipping money to the cabdriver who’d dropped them off at McCormick Place.
Chicago Works is the end product of a six-year attempt by the Daley administration to streamline and control the public image of City Hall. The show is hardly a high-tech marvel, but the picture it paints of the city is exactly the picture the Daley administration wants people to see, and Jim Williams reflects the administration’s philosophy perfectly. Handsome, trim, intelligent, and personable, with a deep, measured voice, Williams is the face the Daley administration puts before the world.
In a different part of the city, one that’s not aired as an example of Daley’s successes, Gerald Earles walks east on 21st Street toward Kedzie. It’s a path he’s gone over, both on foot and in his mind, thousands of times. He’s wearing white overalls and a blue work shirt. He has thick glasses, and his hair is short and snowy gray. The sidewalks on 21st are pitted and jagged. They shoot up and sink down irregularly; at some points they’re nearly impassable. Earles, a 63-year-old auto-body repair worker in North Lawndale, stopped working for money years ago, when neighborhood renewal took over his life. He’s obsessed with repairing sidewalks and planting flowers, paving school parking lots and refurbishing el stations. “My pay comes when it’s fixed,” he says, “to see things looking nice like they should be.”
A young woman comes down the street pushing a baby stroller. She swerves to avoid a hole in the sidewalk. The stroller rattles, shakes, and almost tips over. Earles pulls a camera out of his overalls and snaps a picture. “See, that’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “She’s not going to get over that bump.” After the woman maneuvers her way down the block, Earles says, “They say nobody don’t care about this neighborhood, but they do. They just don’t have nobody to talk with about their problems. They want to know why their neighborhood looks like this, when everything else looks so good.”
Earles wants to know why the streets in North Lawndale are so wretched, and he can’t figure out why the city doesn’t repair the broken sidewalks and clean up the trash. In the basement of the graystone on Trumbull Avenue that he shares with his wife and his 90-year-old mother, he’s documented a battle that he and his small community organization, Slum Busters of Lawndale, have conducted to restore the neighborhood. Amid an odd collection of knickknacks, velvet paintings, and chairs covered with leopard-skin prints, Earles has collected thousands of photographs, hundreds of videotapes, and several filing cabinets full of letters to the government asking when things are going to get fixed.
To help wade through the natural bureaucracy of city government, Earles brings in Roslyn Brown, a community parks and schools advocate who calls herself a “book hound.” While Earles is out in the neighborhood taking pictures and surveying the streets, Brown is dredging city budgets and planning documents, or at least making the attempt. Since Daley became mayor, she says, it’s become harder and harder for citizens to get information about city government; documents are more difficult to obtain and phone calls get returned less often. For instance Brown, who’s on a citizens’ parks advisory council, had been trying to get a hold of the Park District budget since it was passed in December. “It’s supposed to be open information,” Brown says. “Since [Park District superintendent Forrest] Claypool’s been there, it’s impossible to get one. It’s always in printing, they say. Last time, when I looked, all the aldermen had it, but the public couldn’t get it. They had a rule that the advisory council is supposed to have a book. But it’s impossible.”
Brown finally got a copy of the budget in mid-April.
The city gives out plenty of useful information, but most of it’s about how to access existing city services. In addition to Chicago Works and various department publications, Chicago recently unveiled a new Internet program that provides phone numbers of city departments and allows public-library users to access the municipal budget on-line. Still, that’s very different from what many activists are asking for. Real information, about the actual policies and workings of government, is not available for public consumption, and despite claims to the contrary by the Daley administration, City Hall is virtually inaccessible to ordinary citizens. From the top down in City Hall there exists a policy to obscure public information and to hide the actual workings of Chicago’s city government from its people.
“If there was information, you could know what to fuss about,” says Brown. “But at this point, if you don’t know, if you don’t see it, you don’t have no fuss. So that looks like the philosophy of the whole thing. If you don’t see it, you can’t fuss what you don’t know.”
In a spacious sixth-floor office in City Hall, surrounded by Super Bowl memorabilia and stylish new couches, Jim Williams talks about how he perceives his job. “This may sound corny to some people, and cynics may doubt what I’m saying, but I believe it,” he says. “The mayor’s press secretary is a public servant. He or she is paid by taxpayers to get information to reporters, who then give the information to the public as quickly as possible. People have a right to know how the city of Chicago is spending their $3.5 billion. And we have an obligation to provide them with as much information as we can. Mayor Daley believes very strongly that you have to get information in the hands of reporters quickly, with clarity, and that information must be as comprehensive as possible.
“This is a service office. That’s the way I view it first. We have a responsibility, and the mayor believes this, to get information in the hands of reporters as quickly as possible. What that entails is listening to the question. If we can’t answer it off the top of our heads, we don’t have the documents that we need to answer the question on the spot, then we have to go out and act like reporters, call up city departments and get that information. That sometimes takes time, but we call you back and get it to you as quickly as we can.”
Williams says he enjoys his job because he’s “at the table every day,” attending meetings and seeing how government works. “I see the mayor as much as anybody sees the mayor, and the mayor and I talk about a lot of issues,” he says. “I know where the mayor stands on most of these issues. On most of these issues, I can, off the top of my head, respond to a reporter because I know what the mayor’s thinking is. I’m not speaking on behalf of me, I’m speaking on behalf of Mayor Daley. I am his spokesperson. In order for that to happen, and in order for me to have any credibility at all with the press, I have to have access to him, and that’s access that he has given me.”
Williams’s statements reflect the attitude toward information in City Hall. The mayor, Williams says, “gives” him access to information, which is something to be “obtained” from city departments. His policy and decision-making roles are limited: Williams’s chief function is to go before the cameras for Daley while the crucial information decisions are made by others. But in previous administrations, and even under Daley, press secretaries have played a key role in establishing information policy and have actually been included in the inner circle.
During the Richard J. Daley years, the city operated without a Freedom of Information Act, and access to information was tightly guarded. Information went hand in hand with political clout and was doled out as a form of political reward. “You manipulated information within the narrow channels of the old machine, so that your people got as much information as they needed to turn out the troops on election day,” says Alton Miller, once Harold Washington’s press secretary and now a journalism instructor at Columbia College. A former machine alderman quoted in the book of essays Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods, edited by urban planners Pierre Clavel and Wim Wiewel, described the situation in City Hall as such: “There was no access to information, especially for us. Even records that the public got were not made available to the aldermen. . . . We’d be in the city council and they would tell us the title of an ordinance that we were voting on but they wouldn’t let us see it. Tom Keane [former Finance Committee chairman and Daley confidant] would be sitting there with the ordinance on his desk and he wouldn’t let us see it. Sometimes he’d hold up the ordinance and say, “there, you just saw it.”‘
In the mid-70s the federal government started requiring that cities generate some performance data and other financial information in order to qualify for block grants. Suddenly, mountains of statistics existed. But Miller says, “Stuff that would have been available to anybody who really knew how to do research was not the same thing as an administration based on information.” Also, antiquated systems of reporting and storing information kept the channels closed. Miller says, “They went from the mid-19th century to the late 19th century somewhere in the 70s.”
Jane Byrne’s victory in 1979 seemed to promise a more open City Hall, but she refused to introduce a freedom of information law, and government stayed as tightly closed as ever. An independent alderman quoted in Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods said, “Under Mayor Byrne the delays got worse. She instituted a formal regulation whereby any request for information had to go through the Corporation Counsel. This would take weeks; there was this huge bottleneck. Sometimes I’d send a series of letters, and I’d finally get a nice letter back saying, yes, these were public records and they’d give them to me. But if I’d come back and ask them for an update, more recent records of the same kind, they’d make me go back to the Corporation Counsel and get still another legal opinion as to whether these records should be released. There was certainly, on one level, an official policy to obstruct.”
Information began to flow after Harold Washington was elected in 1983–his first executive order was a freedom of information law. Paul Waterhouse, Washington’s second freedom of information officer (the first was Kit Duffy, who took another job in 1984), describes that administration’s attitude as being: “Let’s put things on the table that have been hidden for years. It’s gonna create some controversy and give people ammunition, but in the long run we’re gonna be better off for it.”
Waterhouse inherited from Duffy a busy freedom of information office that made many of the longtime civil servants in City Hall nervous. The 47,000-plus city workers were used to a culture of government based on secrecy, Waterhouse says. “There were going to be an awful lot of people that had been in city government for years, and their first instinct when these kinds of questions would come in would be to duck and say, “How can we get out from under this one?’ So there was a degree to which Kit and I had to reassure people. We’d say, “If you think there’s something controversial, if you think there’s something that’s gonna hurt the mayor, if it’s a public record, it’s a public record.’ There’d still be longtime city employees who would say, “Oh, jeez, Harold might not look real good on this one.’ They’d call me because they’d be nervous that they were gonna get the hammer dropped on them.”
The Washington administration released information to reporters that was used by them to, as Waterhouse puts it, “beat our brains out.” The FOI law also opened up new avenues for community groups, many of them at odds with City Hall. “We just kept churning it out. And they were pleasantly surprised, because we were giving them the ammunition to beat us up,” Waterhouse says. “You know, life goes on, you get the information, you make the argument. If you make your case you win. If you don’t make your case you lose. We’ll take the heat if we go against you. That’s part of the process.”
At the same time the Washington administration was opening up information to the public, it was attempting to translate the arcane language of government for public use. As John Kretzmann, a professor at Northwestern’s Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research who became a Washington information adviser, wrote in Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods, “FOI implied no obligation to make information intelligible, let alone systematically useful for community constituents.” Kretzmann and other academics and administration officials went to work with community groups to establish what they called the “Affirmative Neighborhood Information Policy.” The community groups decided that their first priority would be to make available housing information in an organized, accessible form. The program was modest, but as coordinated through the Department of Planning and Economic Development the administration managed to put together useful data on housing conditions, building code violations, and land acquisition. Harold Washington’s death in 1987 prevented City Hall from, as Kretzmann puts it, “neighborhoodizing” more information. But the housing data remained, and community groups came to depend on it. The city has not expanded on the program since then, but it continues to release monthly housing data in much the same form. “People in community development corporations and a variety of other organizations got to a new level of sophistication,” Kretzmann says, “and were able to think about much more complex sets of agendas and ways of doing business. They got a new set of experiences in working with the next level up of government that has been not at all lost over the years.”
During the Washington years the mayor’s press office also changed. Grayson Mitchell, Washington’s first press secretary, went to Washington, D.C., immediately after the 1983 election to study how the extremely successful Reagan press office worked. Under Nixon the White House office of communications had become a streamlined operation designed to promote the president and his activities. Harold Washington’s press office didn’t reach that state. “It was kind of ragged-edged,” says Alton Miller, who took over the press office in 1984. “It didn’t have a single mission. It had a multiple mission, almost an ad hoc mission.” In fact, says Miller, Washington administration officials at one point proposed a substantial reorganization of the press office that would have placed the flow of information under tighter controls, and Washington rejected the notion.
Miller believed that a communications office should serve as a direct bridge between communities and City Hall; that the press, while important, should not be the only avenue of translating policy. “The only way that this works is if you have a constant circulation of ideas, of input, from the neighborhood level, from the precinct level, from the commercial-development level,” Miller says. “It doesn’t exclude developers and people who are in finance. It doesn’t exclude the old movers and shakers at all. It just factors them in, along with residents of the tenements, churches, neighborhood organizations, activist groups, and so forth. He honestly believed that if you have a myriad of these mediating influences at all levels of your community, with multiple associations, then your contribution becomes part of the best solution.”
During the political turmoil of Eugene Sawyer’s administration, Monroe Anderson, Sawyer’s press secretary, did his best to keep City Hall open. “As far as policy was concerned, there was an adherence to the Washington agenda,” says Anderson, now director of community affairs for Channel Two. “It wasn’t always carried out perhaps as religiously as it would have been had Washington been the mayor, because Sawyer was not Washington. He didn’t have the clout or the power, or, to be honest, the vision. Sawyer just came in and inherited this stuff. But the general overall philosophy wasn’t any different, and we tried to carry it out.”
Anderson says his relationship with the press was somewhat contentious, but “with the community groups it wasn’t a problem. There was no difference from what I could tell between Sawyer’s approach and Harold’s approach for community. There was some difference for press, mainly because Sawyer was intimidated by the press and was uncomfortable with the press. Before he became mayor he’d never dealt with the press at all, whereas Harold was fascinated by the press and reveled in jostling with them. I enjoyed the game, but because Sawyer didn’t enjoy the game and a lot of the people who were advising him didn’t understand the game, it made it a lot more difficult for me.”
Once Richard M. Daley was elected in 1989, many felt relief that the politics of contention marking the Washington and Sawyer years were over. Even Alton Miller was impressed by the way the early Daley administration was run. He praised Daley’s extension of Harold Washington’s affirmative action programs and his early attempts to end mismanagement in City Hall. “Sure, these are all activities that are considerably heavier with symbol than with substance,” Miller wrote in the now-defunct magazine Chicago Times, “but the point is that the substance is there too. It’s just that his top staff is working overtime to ensure that the story doesn’t get bogged down in the details.”
Miller was also impressed by the folks who gathered each day at 8 AM in the office of John Schmidt, then Daley’s chief of staff. These included Avis LaVelle, a former radio reporter who’d become Daley’s press secretary; Forrest Claypool, then assistant to the mayor; Frank Kruesi, then director of programs and policy; and director of intergovernmental affairs Tim Degnan. Miller interviewed political consultant David Axelrod, who argued that Daley’s communications staff needed to coordinate with his policy-making staff. “You have to move along on two tracks,” Axelrod said at the time. “The larger track, the substantive, fundamental priorities; and the smaller track, the tinkering at the margins, doing highly visible things that are symbolic of the larger ones.”
Unknown to Miller and to most people, by the summer of 1989 the tinkering at the margins had begun. Briefly noted in Miller’s Chicago Times article was the fact that Barbara Grochala, Daley’s scheduler, was on leave from the public relations agency Jasculca-Terman, “which is doing a study of press relations in city government.” After the study came out, the information policy of the Daley administration changed considerably. “The premise on which Daley’s team operates,” Miller wrote in 1989, “is that, in the short term at least, you make history by making news. It’s a valid function of government–an obligation of government–to spell out the agenda and report on the progress. And it’s an imperative of politics that you sell yourself. They’re doing both, and doing well.”
Miller was soon to change his mind.
The Jasculca-Terman “Public Information Audit for the City of Chicago” was released on September 11, 1989. Subsequent media coverage of the study focused on its proposals to cut government waste by eliminating public-information jobs in several city departments, as well as its plans to curb city publication expenses. The true intention of the study, however, received very little coverage–it called for the establishment of an office of public information, headed by the mayor’s press secretary, that would include all departmental public information officers as well as the mayor’s press staff. Previously, the hiring and firing of PIOs had been handled by department heads; under the Jasculca-Terman plan, the press secretary, and hence the mayor, would have final say. The press secretary, under the plan, would “supervise all public information activities throughout city government.”
The study cited “a fear among some that City leaders have little knowledge of what potentially privileged information may be given out by uninformed employees,” while not saying what “potentially privileged information” might entail. Describing the PIO situation, the study said, “Individual departments are left to their own devices–giving PIO duties to persons who may or may not have the necessary public information skills; calling them by job titles ranging from public information officer to administrative assistant to truck driver; and paying them salaries that are not based on any scale for this kind of government duty.” The study called the public information function of City Hall “ripe for reform” and said, “While it may make “good copy,’ it is neither good sense nor good public policy when different agencies of City government make public statements that are incomplete or contradictory.” The study added, “There is a significant distinction between controlling the flow of information for the sake of muzzling it . . . and sound management practices [their emphases] designed to ensure that information is timely, accurate, and as complete as possible given the deadlines that must be met.”
While the study went to the trouble of distinguishing between “controlling” and “managing” information, now that the results of Jasculca-Terman are visible throughout City Hall management has turned out to be a sophisticated form of control. An office of public information was never established, but its function is carried out by the mayor’s press office, with PIOs answering directly to the press secretary. “We have a coordinated public relations operation,” says Jim Williams. “That means that Mayor Daley holds me responsible for all public relations in the city of Chicago. They [PIOs] do not call me every day. They often talk to the assistant press secretary. Four of my assistant press secretaries have what they call subcabinets, and they are made up of eight or nine city departments, and they have a fairly consistent line of dialogue between them and those departments. The assistant press secretaries report to me about what’s going on out in the field. The PIOs do not talk to me every day, only if there’s something brewing out there.”
The system Williams describes was put into place by his predecessor, Avis LaVelle, who went to work for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and stayed on as a deputy secretary in Clinton’s press office. LaVelle assigned her assistant press secretaries to subcabinet department “clusters” as “beat” reporters to whom PIOs would report each day. “I take the reports home and read them in the evening,” LaVelle said in 1989. “It’s incredible the kind of information you get–wonderful grist for PR ideas. I have urged each of the PIOs to be a creative person, to identify the most important messages that we can develop in their department and then think of creative ways to communicate it.”
Alton Miller has followed the changes in City Hall closely since Jasculca-Terman. He has a different perception of how its internal information operations work these days, and says they are distinct from those of the Washington administration. “It’s the difference between the fireman at the firehouse up here on Halsted, and the fireman in the book Fahrenheit 451,” he says. “It’s the exact mirror opposite of what it’s supposed to be. In the Washington administration and in previous administrations you had a system of 40-odd departments, each with a commissioner appointed, and each of those commissioners hires a public information officer or designates a secretary or deputy. That person is usually a trusted confidant, someone who can call you in the middle of the night.”
Now the press secretary does that job, Miller says, “as designated from above.” Tumia Romero, who worked in the mayor’s press office for eight years before quitting in 1994, and later worked for Joe Gardner’s and Roland Burris’s mayoral campaigns, says that many information questions end up next door to the press office, on the sixth-floor desk of Timothy Degnan, head of the office of intergovernmental affairs. “Under previous administrations, the press secretary had lots of control over who got information and who didn’t. Under this administration, that no longer exists,” Romero says. “Degnan controls every aspect of government. Everything. The press secretary has little role, if any, on what kind of information is disseminated to the citizens, community organizations, rival politicians, anybody.” Romero says the job of the PIO has changed as well. “Their job was to give information out,” she says. “You call a PIO now and ask them for information, they’ll go to Degnan, and he’ll just sit there. You call them up ten years ago and they’ll go to the mayor’s office and you’d get the information. That’s the difference.”
Alton Miller says that today the press secretary’s job is to look at patterns of information requests and try to find out if a reporter or community group has something cooking that could hurt the administration. “This board lights up and you see deet, deet, deet, like a radar, and you say, “Ah! They’re doing something that does this, this, and this.’ To Avis or Williams, it doesn’t necessarily mean something, but Degnan says, “Oh shit.’ It’s a radar out there, it’s a network, it’s like a spider web, and when something jiggles over here the spider knows what that jiggle means. As for the PIO, the function is split. The PIO is no longer the confidant of the commissioner. The PIO is, if anything, an agent of the king, a viceroy.”
Greg Longhini, who’s been the public information officer for the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development since 1985, says his job hasn’t changed at all since he was hired. “Eighty percent of my time is spent responding to questions from the press,” he says. “We have 250 people in this department, producing an enormous amount of information. My job is to coordinate that information so that we don’t have 249 other people who have jobs to do having to respond to all these requests and taking their time. It’s just much more efficient for one person to coordinate the information, to have all the files on different divisions.”
Longhini is one of several PIOs who have been around since the Washington administration. In other departments the administration has replaced loose cannons with loyalists, and it’s also installed its own people at the Board of Education and the Park District. Still, Longhini considers his job to be primarily a public-information one. “This job has everything to do with my understanding of this department,” he says. “Just yesterday I had two reporters call me up and just read their story that they were going to be producing, word for word, to make sure that they got it right. With what’s in my files, and what’s just in my head from working on all these projects, I can go to somebody and find an answer to a reporter’s question in ten minutes. If I were to die tomorrow it would take someone two days to find that information. . . . A political operative would die in this role, because it’s not a political job. It’s a professional information job, and it’s an extremely different one. I’m a person with a master’s degree in planning who happens to like news. I think you would find the same thing with the people in these other jobs. They’re not political jobs at all.”
Monroe Anderson doesn’t think City Hall’s new coordinated system is a bad idea. He says he wishes he’d had something similar to work with under Eugene Sawyer. “The reality is that the policy is set at the top, not by the commissions,” Anderson says. “The commissioners work for the mayor. They are, in fact, carrying out the mayor’s vision. By having them report to the mayor’s press secretary it offers some continuity and some degree of control, so that everybody’s on the same page. I can tell you, I experienced PIOs going against the mayor and it wasn’t fun.” But at the same time, Anderson says, “The Daley administration is not committed to an open policy. That’s not to say that they have this devious, sinister attitude where they say, let’s put everything behind closed doors so we can do all this terrible stuff. But it’s the difference between a giving, caring, nurturing person on one end, and a hard-hearted, mean, cold-blooded killer type on this end, or just somebody who doesn’t care, who’s just indifferent. Has other interests. That’s where I would submit the Daley administration is, in the middle.”
Under the Washington administration, neighborhood organizations suddenly had the language of government at their fingertips. It was widely believed by activists that objective analysis of information could bring about substantial reform in municipal government. “They started filing requests, showing up at community hearings, and bashing the city for not following through on promises, and hell, it worked,” says Paul Waterhouse. The people who entered City Hall with Richard M. Daley in 1989 were well aware of this phenomenon. Rather than strike down the FOI law or impose draconian limitations, the administration went about coopting, sculpting, and manipulating information for its own purposes. The information flow in City Hall is now managed by a sophisticated, modernized press office, outside public-relations and law firms, and a collection of other private media consultants. Although old-time Chicago politics still exists at City Hall, the Daley administration is effective because it combines clout with honey; it mollifies and manipulates even as it muscles. The old Bridgeport clan, still very much in evidence in the form of Tim Degnan, works hand in hand with skillful media doctors like David Axelrod to create an administration that tightly controls information, yet still gives the impression of an open government.
But not to everyone. Jacqueline Leavy heads the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a nonprofit organization started in 1988 to advocate for increased public investment in neighborhood infrastructure. While her group continues to press on infrastructure issues, Leavy has found it increasingly necessary to educate the public on information. She focuses particularly on the city’s capital improvement budget, a sizable annual document that receives far less public attention than the mayor’s appropriations budget. “The ordinary John Q. or Jane Q. Citizen didn’t even know this thing existed prior to the creation of our organization,” Leavy says. “Once they knew it existed it was extremely difficult for them to get a copy of it. If they got a copy of it they weren’t sure how to read it. Even if they did read it it didn’t tell them what they wanted to know in terms of what physical improvements might be coming to their neighborhoods and when. Or who had made the decision.”
Leavy sat on a citizens panel created by City Hall in 1991 to help make the budget more consumer friendly, and by ’92 the city was breaking down the budget by neighborhoods. But citizen input into the capital budget is still sorely lacking, she says. Although Mayor Daley issued an executive order requiring public hearings on the capital budget, she says that “we’re lucky if the citizens get the proposed draft version of this a week before the public hearing. And when they get it, the draft has already been prepared by the city departments with input from some of the politicians and the mayor’s budget office. They’re getting, in a sense, not too little information too late but too much too late. By the time they have to paw through this to really understand what’s affecting their neighborhoods, the window of opportunity to really influence decision making has passed us by.”
Although only government, and by association private industry, has the resources to repair infrastructure and make neighborhood improvements, Leavy says citizens have a right to help determine what government money will be spent, and how. Without this input, she says, administrations run into political problems. “Typically, the psychology of local government is that citizens don’t need to know,” Leavy says. “We’re the technical experts, they say. This is our bailiwick. What do they care anyway as long as the stuff gets fixed? In reality, what tends to happen is that unless citizens know at least some basic information about some of these issues, government runs up against a political brick wall. If and when they do need to raise taxes and user fees, or when they do need some kind of public political support to raise the revenues needed to address certain problems, if there hasn’t been some public discourse about these matters and some information sharing, it’s pretty hard to get the political will.”
The lack of discourse, she says, contributes to the much written about public disenchantment with government. “You put in, but you don’t get back,” she says. “Citizens complain about the state of the trains running too slow, or the state of the crumbling streets and sidewalks. They’re told, yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it. But we still don’t have any real political commitment on the part of the city government to really get back to people in a sustained process of communication and information sharing.
“I think it’s tragic,” Leavy says, “because government is supposed to be a servant of the people. It’s not supposed to exist as a seat of power in its own right. The power that we invest in government is supposed to be there to serve the public good. The fact that the public is seen as a threat, that sharing information with the public is seen as dangerous, is a terrible and sad commentary on the decline of our democracy.”
The policy priorities that Leavy describes affect people like Gerald Earles and Roslyn Brown in Lawndale, who are still trying to find out when the city’s going to make a concerted effort to fix up their neighborhood. This year’s capital budget was supposed to be released in November, but, like the Park District’s, it didn’t come out until after election day. Brown hasn’t seen one yet.
She’s also trying to get a hold of the CTA and schools budgets.
Earles doesn’t care so much about budget books. He just wants to hear back from the city. “The way I look at it is this,” he says. “They tell us it’s the city that works, but then I start looking at the way it works and what it works for. I look at our community, still going over the bad areas, and I go over to other wards, and it’s still hard to find a really bad sidewalk. We’re talking about just maybe two or three blocks to be repaired, and we’re still 25 years waiting. You have to be on the streets to see the people and the mothers with the strollers and the women with the shopping carts having to go out in the streets. People with wheelchairs go off into the streets. They just continue to ignore us.”
Sometimes he’ll receive a response from the city, and a service request will be filled. Other repairs he’s requested repeatedly, asking everyone from his alderman on up, and the city hasn’t responded. “They’ll send us letters and tell us about meetings to attend,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll go and take some of these pictures and stuff, and a lot of people will come up to me and say they’ve got the address and they’ll see about that. Then after a while I start to get letters back telling me why this can’t be taken care of, this won’t be taken care of. I think they could change some of those systems they’ve got, because they’re continuously letting the problems stay there and going and sprucing up something that doesn’t need to be repaired.”
In March 1993, Earles wrote a letter about the deplorable street conditions on Ogden Avenue, North Lawndale’s main thoroughfare. He sent copies to President Clinton, Governor Edgar, senators Carol Moseley-Braun and Paul Simon, Cook County commissioner Bobbie Steele, state senator Earlean Collins, state representative Art Turner, and Mayor Daley. The letter read, in part: “We have a great concern, it is Ogden Avenue (location from Springfield Avenue to Albany Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) which is a disaster. Enclosed are pictures of Ogden Avenue so that you can see first hand what its present condition is. . . . Please join us in our efforts by becoming a member of the Slum Busters and help to take the beast out of Ogden Avenue by bringing the beauty to Ogden Avenue. This is your neighborhood too.”
Almost immediately Earles received a call from Bobbie Steele, asking what she could do. Clinton’s, Moseley-Braun’s, and Simon’s offices all sent him back letters of support. Soon after, Earles got letters back from the governor and from Collins telling him that the state had jurisdiction over Ogden and that construction would begin immediately. A week later the avenue was being repaved by the state, and a new divider was being put in. But the city has jurisdiction over a parallel lane of Ogden that serves as a business access road. This part of the avenue remains full of potholes, the sidewalks are cracked and full of gaps, and Earles isn’t sure when the city is going to get to work. Two years later, he has yet to hear from City Hall.
Within city government, particularly for those who are not full Daley allies, information is hard to come by. Forty-ninth Ward alderman Joe Moore is, in his words, one of the few “independent” representatives on the City Council “who don’t automatically accept whatever the administration says as gospel.” Moore says that even though there’s more budget information available than ever before, thanks to Paul Vallas, the city’s budget director, he often doesn’t have a clue as to how it should be interpreted. “It’s information overload,” Moore says. “Information in and of itself is totally useless unless you have the capability to process that and separate the wheat from the chaff. I know in my ward my staff spends all its time dealing with ward issues and ward matters. That’s the top priority. So what little I’m involved in issues in the City Council and on citywide issues is done on my own time. I draft my own legislation, I do my own press releases. In my office at least, I am the only one who pores through the budget documents. Nothing would help me better than to have some additional staff people, whether it’s in a pooling arrangement with other aldermen or my own staff people who would help me on my own City Council legislation and help me act as a legislator.”
Moore criticizes what he calls the “palace guard mentality” of the Daley administration. “Decisions are made by a very few people and information is tightly held,” he says. “That’s not true for everybody, and some of the new people they have, like Paul Vallas, are a little bit more open. But it still exists, and they certainly aren’t going to allow any of us independent aldermen to have any real power in the City Council to serve as a legislative check on the executive branch.”
Moore points to the 1992 Chicago flood, when, he says, the Daley administration refused to share important information with the public. While the administration set up a special flood headquarters and gave hourly press briefings, Moore says real information wasn’t forthcoming. “We didn’t have the resources to question intelligently what was going on. During a city reorganization that nobody knew about, the tunnel system cracked. No one claimed responsibility for that. This all came about during the budget season. Because we don’t have the resources to ask the right questions, things like that fall through the cracks.”
Joe Gardner, Daley’s opponent in this year’s Democratic primary, ran into repeated difficulties trying to get information out of City Hall about the Daley administration that he thought he could turn into campaign issues. As FOI requests by the Gardner campaign went unanswered, the mayor repeatedly turned down invitations to debate. In January, Daley’s campaign manager Carolyn Grisko said debates weren’t necessary for an open campaign. “Debates are ostensibly to allow candidates to debate on the issues,” Grisko said. “But Mayor Daley has appeared before virtually every civic organization in Chicago. We believe that Mayor Daley’s positions on the issues are well-known.”
Gardner, in an interview before the election, expressed frustration at Daley’s tactics. “This mayor probably has a public relations machine that rivals that of President Clinton. When you add in the public information officers, the special project coordinators, the people in the press office, the outside consultants that are hired from time to time, he’s built up a massive PR machine. This is a very arrogant administration. And they don’t feel they have a responsibility to respond to the public. Daley’s basically decided, I’m going to put my money on TV and that’s the way I’m going to do it, through paid commercials, as opposed to getting out and talking to people.”
Journalists for small publications have an especially difficult time getting information out of the city. Victor Crown, the assistant editor of Illinois Politics, which depends on Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain documents for its investigative pieces, says the Daley administration gives him much more trouble than either the state or Cook County. “They make it very difficult to accommodate people that have an interest in this,” Crown says. “They will delay and delay and delay until it becomes embarrassing for them, and all of a sudden they’ll scramble and pull together the information that they had all the time.”
For instance, Crown says that he filed an FOI request with the city last January 3 looking for the amount of money the city was spending on outside legal counsel in a 1992 ward remap suit. Under FOI law, the city has seven working days to respond to a request, either by providing the information or with a letter saying the information is not public. Crown didn’t receive official word from the city until February 9, when the Law Department told him he couldn’t have the figures. On February 16 he filed another request, and he finally received an answer ($10 million over several years) on March 10. Crown admits that his motives were political, and that he wanted to publish the information in the February issue of Illinois Politics to influence the primary. But he says that it’s city government’s job to provide journalists, even openly oppositional ones, with information. “The administration has worked very hard to deflect attention away from potential bad news,” he says. “They don’t care. I don’t think they care about the public. They care about power. They care about maintaining their clique and their control on city government. Anything that threatens that, they take a dim view of it.”
The real victims of City Hall’s closed information policy are community groups and ordinary citizens. They are forced either to play along with the administration’s policies or to risk being shut out of the process entirely. Monroe Anderson, who works with hundreds of community groups at Channel Two, says that eventually opposition from the community level will dry up entirely. “This is sort of like being on a fatty diet,” he says. “You go eat a hamburger and some fries and drink a glass of milk, you aren’t going to keel over and die today from that meal. But if you have a constant diet of that, at some point you get hardening of the arteries and it leads to a heart attack. Because the information is not being given to the community groups, who can’t play as active a role in the government as they would like because they aren’t in the loop, eventually it leads to a hardening of the arteries, if you will, where they’re just shut off completely. They only become political tools, pawns. You get stuff, or you get favors, but it’s only politics, and it has nothing to do with policy or good government, or anything. It’s just, well, are they with us or against us, and do we need them or do we not need them?”
The greatest gap in public information, says Jacqueline Leavy, exists in “who’s calling the shots, who’s making the decisions” that drive capital projects. Anne Irving, executive director of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, has been trying for months to find out about the Daley administration’s plans for rebuilding the Northwest Incinerator, which received a $175 million allocation in the latest edition of the city’s capital budget. The departments of environment, streets and sanitation, and planning all have their hands in the project, and Irving wants to find out who’s making the contracting and policy decisions. Her group, she says, is very concerned about the environmental impact of the incinerator, which in 1993 was found to be violating Clean Air Act standards for particulates and opacity. The Department of the Environment claims the incinerator has been cleaned up. CRC, along with other environmental groups, formed WASTE, an antiincinerator advocacy group. Irving says she and other members of WASTE wanted to see if the city was seriously considering other waste-disposal options.
Irving sent a freedom of information request to the Department of the Environment, asking them for their incinerator plan. She received some old test data on incinerator pollutants and a document from the Department of Purchasing saying that the city was considering various vendors for the project. Next, Irving FOI’d all correspondence between DOE commissioner Henry Henderson and the mayor’s office regarding the incinerator. She received back several letters. One letter read, “The City will need outside engineering, legal and financial assistance to accomplish the [incinerator] retrofit.” The next paragraph was whited out. Another, dated December 23, 1993, read, “On January 19, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Incinerator Ash case.” A whited-out paragraph followed. After “The Departments of Streets and Sanitation, Environment, Law, and Planning and Development will all be heavily involved in the project, and the PIO’s in each Department should be in constant communication” there was another whited-out paragraph. A third letter, dated January 14, 1994, from Henry Henderson to Gery Chico, Daley’s chief of staff, began, “The purpose of this memo is to update you on the status of the City’s Northwest Incinerator. As you know, the incinerator is a key component of the City’s solid waste plan and the only municipally owned and controlled disposal site in Chicago.” Half a page after that was whited out, and then there was a quick sentence about which departments were involved in an incinerator task force. Another third of the page was then whited out, and the last sentence read: “DOE and the Mayor’s Office have worked with individual Task Force members, the Law Department and the Purchasing Department to secure outside legal counsel, financial advisory services and environmental engineering expertise to support the retrofit project.” No information was given about who these people are, and there was nothing about their plans for the incinerator.
“Clearly, Henry Henderson isn’t writing people in the mayor’s office saying, “Oh yeah, and by the way we’re going to get a big kickback from Waste Management,”‘ says Irving. “It’s only something like that they would have to blot out. They’re not doing that, and I know they’re not doing that. They set themselves up for looking like they’re doing something dishonest by doing this. If they were, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to put it on paper. I just can’t imagine.
“It seemed to me very strange that the city made this decision to just stonewall,” she says. “Either that means they just wanted to hide the fact that they hadn’t done this prior research to determine whether or not this was a good idea, or they had done it and it wasn’t the result they wanted. Or they could have simply been responding out of a knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, we’ve got to keep the community out of this one.”‘
Irving and other environmentalists have met with the city several times on the incinerator issue. She says she is growing frustrated and that she has no plans to appeal her FOI request, that her organization can’t afford the lawyers’ fees. Meanwhile, the Daley administration continues to refuse to give them any information about the refit. “In terms of folks in the community, I think it makes them feel like they can’t trust the city,” Irving says. “Although it was frustrating to sit through these meetings and have the city say “We won’t tell you,’ in terms of building a coalition it made it much easier on this issue because the city hasn’t provided a counterpoint. So everybody assumed the worst. From a policy perspective, they’d be a lot smarter to share the information.”
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has been one of the Daley administration’s most vocal opponents in the last couple of years, staging protests at City Hall and in the South Loop outside the housing complex where Daley lives. The CCH has been fighting with the administration about information, particularly about the number of homeless people in Chicago. Chris DeAngelis, a college student from Minnesota, is currently a research intern at the coalition. He’s been going over December 1994’s report from the National Conference of Mayors on homelessness, and he’s found some gaps in the information provided by Chicago. For instance, in the category of homeless unaccompanied youth Chicago responded “N/A.” When DeAngelis called Chicago’s Department of Human Services to ask what “N/A” meant, he got the runaround. “You ask them why it’s not applicable and they say, “Well, because that’s not our province, so we’re not going to provide that information. You have to go to the county government, to the state government, to get that information,”‘ DeAngelis says. “But the fact is that practically every other city in America at the mayors’ conference reports it. But Chicago doesn’t, and they don’t have any kind of a qualifier that I can find in the report that says why this is nonapplicable. It’s tantamount to a zero.”
Les Brown, policy coordinator for the CCH, has run into other roadblocks trying to get information out of the city. The CCH is pressing the city hard on economic development issues in the South Loop, which is a Tax-Increment Financing region (TIF) under a public subsidy program designed to help private builders. Brown wrote a letter several months ago to the Department of Planning trying to get information on TIF bond sales and development contracts. “There were a number of requests laid out, and we didn’t get a response, period,” Brown says. “I didn’t call back or aggressively pursue it. I just assumed we weren’t going to get it. That’s historically been the case. I might do the same thing if I was in their position.”
Brown says that the state and county governments have proved much more amenable to his information requests. “I’ve called down to Springfield any number of times with a simple question like, “How much money has the state allocated for homeless services in Chicago?’ Boom, I get it. I call here and I get, “Well, I don’t have that right now in that form.’ I called to find out what the up-to-date figure was on the amount of money that the city of Chicago puts into their budget serving homeless people, as well as what the state contributes and what the feds contribute. The city either couldn’t or wouldn’t give it to me over the phone, and they never got back to me.”
Brown admits that it’s difficult to count homeless people, which makes it hard for governments to decide how much money to allocate for homelessness. “The only reason we continue to debate it is because we don’t think they’re adequately trying to address it. If they were to say that on any given night there are 5,000 people in Chicago who don’t have a permanent place to live, ain’t that enough? Let’s deal with those people.” John Donahue, CCH’s executive director, says the city plays fast and loose with homeless numbers in documents like the mayors’ conference report. “If you look at the numbers, it’s zero, zero, zero, when there’s percentages off the wall in other cities,” Donahue says. “If you compare the information from Chicago with the information from other cities who have the same problems, it’s just incredible the kind of information Chicago puts out.”
In the early 90s, Carolyn Eastwood, an anthropologist who teaches at Roosevelt University, was repeatedly frustrated as she tried to find out more about the city’s plans for the Maxwell Street Market area. Eastwood had written her PhD thesis on market vendors in 1986, and now she wanted to follow up on her research, for both academic and activist purposes. She went to the then First Ward alderman, Ted Mazola, and told him she’d been having trouble getting information on the market. “He said, “Well, you probably can’t get any because there isn’t any,”‘ Eastwood says. “He absolutely gave me nothing. I had gone to the Department of Planning, somebody gave me one name, and that person passed me on to another person, who passed me on to another person. It ended up that I talked to five people, and the last one passed me back to the first one. I didn’t get anything out of anyone.”
Eastwood describes the Maxwell Street situation in a paper, “The Demise of an Urban Market: Does It Matter? Who Cares?,” that she presented at an anthropology conference in March. Eastwood wrote that she dealt with bureaucrats who were afraid to lose their jobs or former bureaucrats who feared that the city would somehow take revenge on them if they talked. “City administrators . . . consistently “don’t know anything about that,’ or “don’t have any information yet,”‘ Eastwood wrote. “This response is understandable since some who were sympathetic to the market were demoted or moved laterally out of influential positions. One administrator who was key in the planning stages did not want to talk, but he referred me to another who “is no longer with the city government and perhaps can be more candid.’ Her answer was, “I’ve moved on now–I’m not with the city anymore–and I don’t want to go back and look at that issue.’ Perhaps this is because her development corporation may depend on the city for funds. Another administrator, who was pro-market, was demoted, then saw the light, and was finally restored to a position of authority.”
Eastwood contrasted the current situation in City Hall with that in 1985 and 1986, when she was doing her initial research on Maxwell Street. She says, “They had this incredibly antiquated system where they had all these cards where vendors signed up for their licenses. They brought them up in baskets from the basement, and I went through the cards. There was nothing on computer, but I was able to at least get names and phone numbers. It wasn’t much, but I was still able to find information then.”
Eastwood says she’s given up trying to get information out of the city, that the total defeat of the pro-Maxwell Street forces showed her that there’s no reckoning with municipal government these days. “As far as Daley’s administration goes, he wants to do things his way and he doesn’t want anyone standing in the way,” she says. “He’s got the power and he’s winning all the time, and everyone’s saying all the time what a good job he’s doing. So the voices that see the kinds of information problems I’m talking about are silenced more and more. It’s just nearly impossible to prove, and you have no way of getting back. It takes away any kind of empowerment that ordinary people have. It leaves such a feeling of helplessness and cynicism. And I think that’s a real pity.”
Even groups that don’t necessarily stand in opposition to City Hall have trouble getting information out of the Daley administration. Charlotte Newfeld, a Lakeview activist and former aldermanic candidate in the 46th Ward, tried in 1990 to conduct a study of how much it would cost to increase the police presence at Wrigley Field and other major sports facilities. Her group, Citizens United for Baseball and Sunshine, was planning to propose a 75-cent-per-ticket tax earmarked for city support services during games. To draft the proposal, Newfeld needed information on the cost of using police at the stadiums, particularly on busy game days. “There was no way we could propose this without information,” she says.
The proposal was never made. The Police Department gave Newfeld only minimal data. After repeated delays, Newfeld took her FOI appeal to court, but she was told she had framed the request wrong. Nothing ever came of her appeals. “If the Police Department from the top down would have said, “Let’s give it to them,’ then we would have had the information,” she says. “We’re not asking how many rapists are in the Police Department. We’re asking for simple salary figures. It became more and more evident that this was not going to be an avenue of help from the city.”
Newfeld says community groups have basically stopped filing FOIs because they can’t afford the legal fees for appeals. She says, “We used to have the feeling, at least, that we could go in and get this information. What else did we have to deal with? We couldn’t get money. It places community groups on the outside rather than give them help on the inside. Information is what everybody goes with. I mean, talk about a middle-class issue! This was a very upwardly mobile kind of issue. When these things can’t get done, you wonder.”
Perhaps some of this denial of information can be explained away as simple bureaucratic intransigence. But the numerous instances of closed debate seem to add up to more than just the clumsiness of municipal government; they seem policy driven. As Daley consolidates his hold on city politics, the problems will probably grow worse. “They give out little snippets of information to keep people happy,” says Paul Waterhouse. “[Tim] Degnan’s natural tendency is to say nothing of consequence. He may make the decision that people can talk, but they’d better not talk about anything that means anything. They see that this guy’s [Daley’s] got power, and especially the way Degnan runs things, once they make a decision, that’s it. If they hear any static from anybody, it’s like, “Look, asshole. If you want something from us, ever again in your life, you don’t do this to us. That’s not the way we play this game.’ And knowing that, and seeing how strong Daley is politically, I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of those groups back off and say we don’t need this. I don’t see anyone who’s seeking coalitions anymore, and they don’t seem to be using information as a tool. I have to believe it isn’t happening because I see no evidence of it.”
Meanwhile, people like Gerald Earles may never be informed about when and if the city will help them fix up their neighborhoods. Still, Earles is excited about this spring and summer, when North Lawndale’s community gardens will start to bloom again. On an unnaturally warm day in early March, he walked around his neighborhood and pointed out what needs to be repaired, what needs to be maintained. “This is my kind of weather,” he said. “This is Slum Buster weather.” Stopping at a community garden on Trumbull, he pointed to a plant he put in himself. “This is our butterfly bush. You should see it–it really draws the butterflies.” His walking tour continued until he arrived under the el tracks and noticed the mounds of garbage, the peeling paint, the discarded tires. He sighed. “The most beautiful time in North Lawndale is the winter, when it snows,” he said. “Everything is beautiful when it’s all covered up.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jeff Heller; photos/Peter Barreras.