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Mayor’s task force seeks public input on ethics

Charlotte Caahill, 33, does not have high expectations from the Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s Ethics Reform Task Force. But she said she believes that even just showing up to a meeting demonstrates that the issue of ethics in the government is one that Chicagoans care about. So she decided to go to its second public meeting when she learned that only three people showed up at the last meeting held at Olive-Harvey City College on Feb. 15.

“Showing up is a good start,” Caahill said while looking satisfactorily at over three dozen people sitting on green chairs in the lobby of new Truman College building on March 12.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The four-member task force, formed in December 2011, has been seeking public input on ways to review the ethics ordinance and increase transparency throughout the city government. Chaired by Cynthia Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, its members included Dawn Clark Netsch, Sergio Acosta and Ald. Will Burns (4th).

The people who spoke before the task force stressed the need for transparency and openness in the way the city conducts its business.

“This is a chance to turn the Chicago way into a right way,” said Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association.

Shaw said taxpayers should know how the major decisions are made, who the mayor meets, how long and where. The public needs this information in order to understand how the man they trust with management of Chicago is spending his time, he said.

Stephen Franklin, president of the Chicago Headline Club, presented the results of a survey on journalists’ accessibility to public information. He said that most of the time, the city did not comply with the Freedom of Information Act regulations that govern the public accessibility of information.

“We found it very difficult in the city of Chicago to search very simply who a FOIA officer is in each department,” Franklin said. The city continues to stall and redact (block from public view) information that it should not. Plus, not all information is searchable or downloadable, he said.

“You cannot legislate cooperation. But what you can do is create an environment that lets information be open and available,” Franklin said.

Responding to Franklin’s remarks, the Executive Director of Chicago Board of Ethics, Steven I. Berlin, said that his office never received or even heard of any complaints from anyone about the Board of Ethics delaying any FOIA request responses.

“I cannot speak to the veracity of Mr. Franklin’s public city-wide allegations, or whether– and if so– how much they are exaggerated, but I assure you that he is not talking about the Board of Ethics,” said Berlin in an email. Any information the ethics board redacts is authorized to be redacted by the City’s Municipal Code, he said.

Berlin further said that the Board of Ethics is not responsible for putting city contract information on the web or making it publicly accessible, as that information falls beyond their purview and type of documents they make available on the web and on paper.

“We are responsible for making publicly available a long list of document but I believe he is not complaining or referring to anything we do.  If he is, I would indeed be curious, and it would be the first I’ve ever heard about it,” Berlin said.

The city’s Chief FOIA Officer could not be reached for comment.

The 38th Ward Alderman Tim Cullerton, who served in the city council for the past 38 years, said he supports the ethics task force endeavor as a healthy exercise to restore faith in the local government.

“I commend the mayor for putting this group to task to find ways to strengthen the integrity of our local government,” Cullerton said in an interview.

In order to make the city more transparent, Cullerton suggested, Chicagoans should show up at the city council meetings, question the elected officials and see how they vote on legislation.

Besides public forums, the task force has instituted a website and an email address to solicit public input and suggestions. They have also conducted over 60 interviews with academics, civic leaders, experts and elected officials, and plan to hold several focus groups with city employees.

Task force chair Cynthia Canary said the information about these forums has been posted on Facebook, LinkedIn, everyblock and a host of other blogs and sites.

“I think that these forums have been very helpful in getting the word out. I expect that the report will go to the Mayor in mid-April,” Canary said in an email.

Chicagoans like Charlotte Caahill are still skeptical that the task force will help deliver meaningful change. Caahill said she wished to hear more about the task force’s mission directly from its members, as well as some reasonable steps to take in terms of promoting ethics in the city government.

“I am not certain I would believe what they said. But I would like to hear them talk about it,” Caahill said.

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