A lot of clichés get brought out around election time. Unless you’ve been in a complete media blackout over the past few months, you’ve experienced a constant stream of TV, radio and digital ads coating us with politicians’ vows to “fight,” “protect,” “defend,” “stand up,” “insert powerful verb here.” All for us.
No matter the office being jockeyed for, improving government transparency is one clichéd promise made almost without fail during each campaign season. It’s a popular sell; after all, governments can never have too much transparency—aka taxpayers’ ability to see how their government is operating and how their money is being spent.
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was first running for his post in City Hall, he vowed to create “the most open, accountable and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen.” Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia promises on her political website to “make it her mission to make city services accessible to all by bringing efficiency, innovation and transparency to government.”
Unfortunately for taxpayers, both Mayor Emanuel and City Clerk Valencia have fallen far short of their campaign dedications for more open and honest governments in Chicago.
Mayor Emanuel has continually thumbed his nose at transparency for both major and routine operations of his office and city government. The Chicago Tribune was forced to take him to court over his use of a personal email account to conduct city business—an account he still uses for government issues. Details—and costs—of major pieces of legislation, like the recent O’Hare deal, are kept from taxpayers until after they are already passed—or as good as passed. The city’s Law Department continually is being fined and admonished for withholding information on lawsuits against the city and police department.
The list could go on, but you get the point.
Clerk Valencia has been in office for only a little over a year and has improved some aspects of transparency in her office, such as how City Council meetings are streamed online for people to watch live. But taxpayers are still being left in the dark on too many aspects of how their government is operating. Few if any records of Chicago City Council committee meetings are available for taxpayers to review, and going to a committee meeting is many times a race against the clock to find out when and where a meeting is held or what will actually be on the agenda.
Clerk Valencia also failed the transparency test when her office refused to answer any questions surrounding the Project Six investigation into possible misconduct dealing with a major city vendor and the controversial termination of a senior advisor in the clerk’s office.
For that investigation, a whistleblower told us about potential misconduct involving a senior staffer in the clerk’s office with ties to Mayor Emanuel who was terminated but seemingly allowed to stay on the job for two weeks and “resign.”
We repeatedly asked the clerk’s office to try to clear up any of the questions raised by the evidence and investigation into potential tax dollar waste and wrongdoing in an important city department.
Their response? No comment.
Illinois politicians have never been models of open and honest government. Just watch any press conference at City Hall, where answers to reporters’ questions are limited to either talking points or insults at the opposing politician or party. Being politically calculating is one thing, but refusing to give taxpayers and voters information about how their government is operating and whether or not there is misconduct occurring inside our city and state operations is unacceptable.
Every two years, Chicagoans get bombarded with campaign promises from politicians to either do better than the status quo, or do better than they have so far. And all the time in between, Chicagoans see the same secretive and opaque policies operate.
Transparency is a perennial selling point for politicians trying to win votes for a reason: It’s important. But instead of simply allowing transparency to be a popular talking point every two or four years, voters need to demand it in between election days.
It can no longer be acceptable for Chicago taxpayers to be without budget and financial data on city projects; information on where, when and what our elected officials debate and vote on; or answers to reasonable questions into government operations or evidence of misconduct.
As we’ve seen with city officials from the mayor on down, unless voters demand real action on an issue, it won’t ever get acted upon. Voters and taxpayers should take their opportunity this campaign season to demand a truly transparent Chicago and Illinois government. Otherwise this article can be run again next campaign season without any changes.