Government transparency comes in a number of forms. Two of the most important include:
- The public’s ability to see the actions of their elected officials.
- The government’s processes and protections for the personal information of constituents.
Unfortunately, Chicago fails the test of open and honest government using both these metrics.
A new analysis of the digital communications and platforms Chicago aldermen use shows many aldermen using private email accounts to conduct city business. Some aldermen also have privately owned ward websites, where people can retrieve city information and news, and some of these sites collect and store constituents’ private information.
Aldermen using private emails and hosting privately owned ward sites that collect constituent services requests make it harder for the public to see how their elected officials are serving their respective offices and spending tax dollars. It also opens the possibility for constituents’ personal information being used for political reasons.
How open and honest elected officials are in their public roles, as well as how those elected officials communicate and utilize sensitive information, are telling benchmarks for the role transparency plays in a government office. The importance of government transparency has been emphasized by national issues such as Hillary Clinton’s use of private email and servers, as well as local cases like Mayor Rahm Emanuel having to be sued to release city communications on private emails.
Unfortunately, despite the significant attention and scrutiny on this issue, for politicians in the City of Chicago, government transparency is still clearly not a top priority.
The problem with private email
There are 19 Chicago aldermen who use unsecured and untrackable private email accounts to conduct city business. These were identified by the listings of these email addresses on the City of Chicago’s website, aldermanic websites or aldermanic offices’ social media accounts.
The public’s ability to see how elected officials are conducting government business and spending tax dollars is one of the biggest deterrents to government corruption at every level. In Chicago alone, government employee emails have frequently been used to uncover and prosecute corruption. But many elected officials try to skirt the law and hide their emails and official correspondence from public view.
The City of Chicago provides official city emails to all of its employees with the domain of “@cityofchicago.org”. All government emails are subject to Freedom of Information requests and provide an easily trackable and searchable source of an elected official’s communications.
Yet, more than a third of Chicago aldermen—and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel—use private email accounts to conduct day-to-day city business. Using private email accounts can make it hard, if not impossible, for citizens or the media to obtain email correspondence and data concerning public city business.
The Freedom of Information Act was designed in 1967 to allow the public the right to access records from the government. In the State of Illinois, the general provision under the Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140) is crystal-clear in its call for transparency:
It is the public policy of the State of Illinois that access by all persons to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government. It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible in compliance with this Act.
The use of private emails by public officials in Chicago and Illinois has been called a “contagious disease” because of its effect on government transparency. Michael Reitz from the Michigan Coalition for Open Government describes the practice as “Send[ing] a signal to the public that business is being conducted outside the scope of the public records law.”
Of the 19 city aldermen that use private email systems to conduct city business, even Alderman Michelle Harris, who is the chair of the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics—which is tasked with ensuring aldermen abide by City Council rules—uses both her city email and a private Gmail account as official contacts for city business.
There are, unfortunately, too many examples of public officials using private accounts in a direct attempt to hide their actions from the public eye. When (former) University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise used her private email account to discuss controversial university business, she told other faculty members, “We are doing virtually nothing over our [University of] Illinois email addresses, I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”
City employees are also required to sign a Confidentiality and Acceptable Use Policy. The city’s policy outlines strict guidelines for how information must be disclosed and shared and states that “A position of trust has been conferred upon every authorized person who, as part of their job function, comes in contact with confidential information to keep this information secure and private.”
Official city emails and the city servers that house them are also highly encrypted to protect city and taxpayer data from potential hacks and cyberattacks.
Whether the use of private email accounts for official government business is done out of carelessness or a direct attempt to hide the contents from public view, the results are the same: a massive lack of transparency and a serious data security risk for city information.
Private ward websites might look official—in reality they are not
There are 45 city aldermen who use private website domains to host ward information, news and operational information. Many times, the websites appear official and as if they are run by the City of Chicago. Examples of these website domains include: 12thwardchicago.com, ward09.com and the15thward.org.
Aldermen use these websites to provide information and news about their respective wards for constituents. However, many aldermen use the sites to promote political campaigns, as well as collect constituent requests and information for city services outside of official city 311 platforms. As a result, these ward websites questionably mix the business of aldermen’s city offices and their political operations.
Unlike city email accounts, the City of Chicago does not own or manage the ward websites city aldermen use to distribute information about their wards to constituents.
More than 30 aldermanic websites have forms to fill out requests for city services or register complaints about buildings, businesses or residents. At first glance, this might seem like a convenient and helpful way for aldermen to assist their constituents, but the City of Chicago has the 311 services for residents to make requests for city business, such as reporting abandoned autos, tree removal and other non-police-related emergencies. An aldermen having request forms on a private website is, at best, an alderman acting as a middleman and unnecessarily slowing down the process for constituents to get services they need. At worst, it is an avenue for aldermen to collect personal information on their constituents and use it for political reasons.
Residents can access 311 by phone or online or even download the 311 app on their cell phones. The 311 service compiles these official requests with trained city personnel and logs all 311 requests on the secured city server. The city then provides a detailed report to every aldermanic office of the status of all requests in their wards, which the aldermen are free to follow up on.
For action to be taken on any service requests, aldermanic offices must file requests through the city’s 311 service themselves.
When an alderman—or any politician—collects constituent data on private websites, there is no oversight and no regulation for how that information is used or passed on for political or private use. Constituents requesting city services through an alderman’s website could unknowingly also be signing up for political advertisements, requests and donation solicitations.
City aldermen informing constituents of ward business and being closely aware of what is happening in their wards can be a positive way for an elected official to serve the public. But aldermen circumventing—and possibly slowing down—approved procedures to request city services leads to an untrackable and more bureaucratic system.
Accusing an elected official or government office of not acting transparently is not the same as accusing them of corruption or waste. But without open, consistent and transparent governments, it is impossible to tell the difference between carelessness and corruption.
There is no reasonable excuse for any elected official, including Chicago aldermen, to use private email to conduct government business. Numerous examples from the national, state and local levels have shown how government officials using private emails can impede information requests and harm the public’s right to know how their elected officials are acting in office.
City aldermen using websites and social media platforms to interact with their constituents can be a positive and helpful way for residents to quickly and easily get information on their ward. But the city should develop city ward websites with input from each alderman. This is neither an expensive nor unreasonable solution and will ensure that all constituent information is handled safely and honestly, as well as provide a useful and secure avenue for Chicago aldermen to interact with their constituents.
The digital age can give incredible options for government bodies and elected officials to quickly and efficiently serve taxpayers. But it also allows new and creative ways for information to be hidden from the public eye. It is critical for elected officials, government bodies and oversight agencies to write and strengthen laws ensuring government transparency at all levels and through all mediums. Without this vigilance, too much can be kept in the dark.
This investigation has been submitted to the Chicago Inspector General and the Chicago Board of Ethics.
This investigation abides by Project Six’s Guarantee of Quality Scholarship.
The city of Chicago Law department issued a statement to Fox 32 News based on the Project Six report which reads:
“Aldermen are provided the option to use the City’s email system, however, they can choose to communicate with their constituents and others from whichever email provider they are most comfortable. Aldermen are not subject to FOIA under the statute, as FOIA pertains only to public bodies*. However, if an Alderman or Aldermanic staff choose to use a City email address, those records may be subject to FOIA because they are within the possession of the City, which is a public body.”
*See Quinn v. Stone, 211 Ill. App. 3d 809, 812 (1st Dist. 1991) (“An exhaustive review of both state and federal law defining ‘public body’ reveals no case which would include an individual alderman in that definition.”)
“Exhaustive” efforts have been made to exempt Chicago aldermen from transparency rules and laws on many different issues over the years. There is no reasonable excuse for why aldermen should be allowed to operate outside of City rules and policies.