Mayor Richard M. Daley Credit: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Last week Mayor Daley and Mara Georges, the city’s corporation counsel, announced at a press conference that the city was adding several new features to its Web site to improve the “transparency” of Chicago government. “That’s the kind of government the residents of Chicago want, and it’s the kind of government that I want,” Daley said.

As we’ve made clear here at the Reader, it’s the kind of government we want, too. The new information the city is posting online includes economic disclosure statements filed by thousands of city employees, data about more than 150 boards and commissions whose members are picked by Daley, payments made to law firms and other businesses that do work for the city, and a log of all the Freedom of Information Act requests received by every city department.

Most of that was good news, though the city didn’t actually go so far as to make the additions easy to use. For example, the newly posted payment records are in cumbersome PDF files that can’t be searched or readily analyzed—and they only go back as far as this past January.

But the FOIA log is what understandably caught the attention of the journalists in town. Though the FOIA is designed to help all citizens access public records, it’s a critical tool for reporters, a way of asking questions about government operations with the weight of state law behind them.

Georges and Daley told reporters that posting the FOIA information online was a response to mandates of the state’s newly toughened FOIA law that went into effect at the beginning of the year. (And which some legislators from around the state have been trying to roll back ever since.) The amended law does require government agencies to keep track of all the FOIA requests they get, but it doesn’t require them to reveal to the public that the requests have been made. And most important, it doesn’t require them to let the public know how they’ve responded to the requests.

Critics said the city was motivated less by the spirit of tranparency than by a desire to sandbag their efforts: the move doesn’t reveal any scoops, but it announces to the public (and the competition) any digging that’s under way. “Mayor Daley on Thursday got some measure of revenge against the investigative reporters who’ve made his life miserable by digging up dirt on the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals,” Fran Spielman wrote in the Sun-Times.

At the announcement Georges had insisted the city was not out to make life harder for journalists, but her boss undermined her credibility. Daley’s amusement was audible: he wasn’t just chuckling, he was losing it.

As soon as the new Web features went live, people started commenting on what they saw on the FOIA log. Time Out Chicago‘s Frank Sennett sounded almost as giddy as Mayor Daley had, posting his observations on Twitter. “Judging by city’s new FOIA request page, Daily Herald’s working O’Hare landing fees, Bloomberg’s on United merger, Dumke’s stalking Daley,” he wrote. Sennett’s reaction just helped illustrate that the city’s step toward “transparency” is, to put it politely, a sham.

Under the section listing requests submitted to the office of the mayor, for instance, the log shows that I’d submitted a request for “Copies of the mayor’s appointment calendar daily schedule from Nov. and Dec. of 2009 and Feb. through April of 2010.” I could mention that if I were stalking someone, I’d probably be more interested in where he’s going to be than where he was six months ago. But more noteworthy—to me, anyway—is that I never actually submitted a FOIA request for those materials, and yet the request for them was posted anyway.

Last September President Obama announced that as part of his administration’s commitment to open government he was authorizing the publication of a White House visitors’ log. “Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process,” he said at the time.

Members of the public can now go to the White House Web site and find a database offering details of more than 300,000 meetings held by Obama and his staffers. It shows, for example, that Mayor Daley met with the president in the White House on October 30, 2009, and again January 20, 2010.

There’s nothing comparable on the city’s Web site, though I believe Chicagoans have a right to know who’s got the mayor’s ear. So a couple of months ago I sent in a FOIA to the city’s law department requesting a copy of the mayor’s appointment calendar or meeting schedule for the month of January 2010. The reason I submitted a FOIA was the same reason anyone ever submits a FOIA, whether they’re reporters or not—they want or need information about government operations that isn’t publicly available.

I never expected city officials to keep my request a secret. I know better—in the past I’ve had city spokespeople tell me what competing reporters were working on, and I assumed that my inquiries were probably passed on the same way from time to time. But submitting a FOIA is kind of like telling your doctor you’re going to sue him. It ups the ante. I’d much rather get the press liaison on the phone and say, Hey, I’m looking for these documents—what would it take for me to come in and make copies of them? But most flacks can’t or don’t work like that. Before forking over the info they force reporters to send a formal letter invoking the state law.

Government agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within five business days, but in my experience they usually don’t. They might send out a note saying they need more time; often they don’t respond at all unless reminded—often—that they’re obligated to.

Such was the case with my FOIA for Daley’s appointment calendar. I had to do a lot of badgering, but eventually—after about six weeks—the law department provided me with a stack of papers detailing whom the mayor had met with and where he’d gone every working day in January. The contact information for various staffers and specifics about security arrangements had been blacked out, which was fair enough, since these details are exempt under the FOIA.

The calendar included lots of intriguing tidbits and some that weren’t so intriguing. I was hardly shocked to learn that Daley meets frequently with his top aides and the people he’s handpicked to lead the CTA, the schools, and the Park District. Nor was it a surprise that he sits down with lots of local business leaders and their lobbyists, many of whom are familiar faces. On January 8, for example, he met with officials from Rush University Medical Center, including vice president of external affairs Terry Peterson. Peterson once ran the CHA for Daley and in 2007 managed the mayor’s reelection campaign. He’s currently the chairman of the CTA board. On January 9, the day after the Rush meeting, Peterson and Daley crossed paths again—Peterson introduced the mayor at an event celebrating the completion of work on the Brown Line.

City Council meetings often feel scripted these days. Maybe they’re not, but before the City Council meeting in January Daley got together with Jean Coogan, his intergovernmental affairs director; Jackie Heard, his press secretary; and aldermen Danny Solis, then the council’s president pro tem, and Ed Burke, chairman of the finance committee. And couple weeks before Alderman Anthony Beale claimed he had the votes to bring a new Walmart to his south-side ward, Daley met with him and a Walmart official.

(Click here to see a full list of the mayor’s meetings and conferences for the month of January.)

There wasn’t much more I could gather from a single month of the mayor’s calendar—I couldn’t identify any patterns of lobbying, for example. So I thought it would be fair and appropriate to take a look at a few more months—perhaps five so I’d have half a year total.

On May 4 I sent an e-mail asking for help in getting the additional records. I emphasized that if there were any way of getting the information without making a formal FOIA request I’d be open to it. I didn’t hear anything back, so a few days later—on May 6—I followed up with a call. I was told that they had indeed received my e-mail. “We’re treating it as a FOIA request,” the spokeswoman said. “You’ll be hearing from us shortly.”

The next time I heard anything about the request was on May 13, when I saw it listed on the city’s new public FOIA log.

As fascinating as the requests are, what’s most important to me isn’t included on the log: the city’s response to them. Will the city comply with or deny each of them? If it denies any, will it provide the reason? In the event of compliance, will those materials be made available to the general public—online, for example? Assuming the requested records are kept in electronic form—as most are—it wouldn’t take much to post them on the Web site, correct?

I asked these questions of the spokeswoman with the law department. She said I’d have to ask the mayor’s press office. I did. I was told they’d get back to me. They haven’t.

However, I wasn’t completely ignored by city officials in this new era of transparency. A few hours after the FOIA log went live, I received an e-mail from the law department telling me they were denying my request for more of the mayor’s appointment calendar. Sharing the materials with me, they said, “could provide sufficient detail so that a pattern of behavior could be established.” And this, they said, could pose a threat to the mayor.

I keep checking, but so far they haven’t posted this response on the FOIA page.