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If You’ve Filed a FOIA in Chicago, Thank Harold Washington

The late mayor’s administration opened up city information in unprecedented ways. But it wasn’t just good-government practices; it was also a political wedge issue.

Harold Washington at DuSable High School, February 1983   Photo: Ernie Cox, Jr./Chicago Tribune

In 10 days, the Chicago Headline Club is throwing FOIAFest, which is sort of like Lollapalooza for people who want to get information from government bodies (and full disclosure, Chicago will be there—editor David Bernstein will walk attendees through the process he used to get information for his feature last year, The Truth About Chicago Crime Rates).

Journalists will be talking about the process at the event, but you don’t have to be a journalist to take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act: For instance, a library sciences grad student got some genuinely revelatory emails through FOIA regarding why Chicago Public Schools pulled the graphic novel Persepolis from its shelves (and how high the decision went).

And if you’ve filed, or will file, a FOIA in Chicago, your ability to do that dates back to Harold Washington, who made the first big strides in trying to transform local government into a transparent, data-driven institution.

I’d known Washington instituted the first FOIA law in the city, back in August of 1983 (Illinois would follow up in November, the last state in the union to pass one). What I didn’t know was quite how ridiculous things were before him. Take what one Chicagoan told community-development expert John Kretzmann:

Under Mayor Byrne 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.

Who was that Chicagoan? A muckraking journalist? A rabble-rousing activist? Nope, an alderman.

But an independent alderman. Surely things were better for machine aldermen?

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.

If it’s a rubber-stamp council, might as well not waste unnecessary resources.

It wasn’t perfect, as Kretzmann details in his essay for the anthology Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods; information generated by the city was usually generated for the benefit of internal employees, and often incomprehensible to the general public—which, by the way, is still a public-records problem. A friend put it well at Chicago Hack Night last night—government is and will always be the primary consumer of government information, so it will be written, organized, and parsed for government. That’s why community groups have been pressuring the Emanuel administration to not merely publish information on, say, tax increment finance districts, but also to make it at least somewhat comprehensible for normals. And there’s been some success on that front.

Back to Washington: The mayor signed the law in August of 1983, well after the federal government (1966) but before the state had. Some of the benefits to enacting FOIA were logistical for the city government. One Washington transition team member told Kretzmann that it used to take 150 people to assemble basic data on what was happening in the city, data that should have been waiting when they walked in the door. After 83, there was a system in place to handle those data requests.

But the law was also political. “The voting blocks targeted by campaign strategists were made up almost entirely of groups that could be expected to resonate positively to the participation theme,” Kretzmann writes. On some level, it was a bit of post-machine ward heeling: delivery of services to loyal (or desired-to-be-loyal) constituents to increase their political power. In this case, the service was open-government information—even if the power it gave could be used against the administration itself.

What happened after Harold Washington? Neil Pollack, then with the Reader, wrote a long piece on how the flow of information changed under Daley, as the city reverted back to a strong mayor with power centralized in City Hall. But it wasn’t the feature-not-a-bug Byzantine morass of the past. Instead, tracking broader political evolution, it was tight, tidy, and controlled.

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.

Only so much of Washington’s work could be rolled back. Nonetheless, FOIAs will always be somewhat fraught. And that’s what FOIAFest is all about.

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