BGA, others force Emanuel to release work-related private emails
Following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filing and lawsuits, Illinois’ Better Government Association (BGA) recently succeeded in forcing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to release private emails that pertain to city business.
BGA effected a policy change through Cook County court rulings that public officials’ private emails are covered under FOIA. After a legal tussle lasting over a year that included a lawsuit filed by the Chicago Tribune, the BGA expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
"It's unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to produce the transparency we all deserve," BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw said. "That said, this is a major step forward in the fight for transparency at City Hall."
Accordingly, the City of Chicago’s new policy will be provided in writing to every employee and civic leader in the jurisdiction to raise awareness of the obligation to refrain from using any email accounts for city business that are not administered or assigned by the city itself.
Additionally, if a staffer or official happens to receive email communication that relates to city business of any kind through a private (non-city) email account, he or she now will be required to immediately forward the message to his or her own city-sponsored account. Failure to comply may result in disciplinary action.
"Use of private email accounts that hide the transaction of public business threatens to render meaningless the open-records laws that allow citizens to hold their government accountable,” Shaw said. “The new city policy requiring public business to be conducted where it's subject to public scrutiny is a sea change in transparency and consequently in good government.”
When Emanuel first took office in 2011, he promised transparency to his constituency, yet the ability to access City Hall’s public records has not been easy. BGA said requests for documents involving controversial issues and/or the mayor himself have frequently involved delays and court cases.
In a recent message to BGA Counsel Matthew Topic, a representative for Emanuel said all emails that had been stored on the mayor’s non-city email accounts were provided (as of this week) as per an agreement between the City of Chicago and the BGA. Topic said the only withheld information was material already categorized as exempt under the Freedom of Information Act’s Section 7, noting that only exempted portions were redacted by the Mayor’s Office.
"We hope the city will take the lessons of this case, the Laquan McDonald case, and many others to heart and continue to seriously reform its transparency policies in a fundamental way without the need for future litigation," Topic said.
Topic was referring to the controversial, high-profile Chicago incident involving the fatal shooting of 17-year-old McDonald by a Chicago police officer in 2014. Several officers were discovered to have lied about the episode, provoking public protests demanding changes in law enforcement and judicial procedure.
Evidence from the youth’s Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office autopsy, police dash-cam video and a nearby restaurant’s surveillance video footage ultimately resulted in the FIOA filing and a subsequent order from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan demanding that the local police department release its dash-cam video footage.
Many citizens called for the ouster of city officials following the McDonald shooting, including Emanuel. After handling the criminal proceedings, Madigan’s office requested that the U.S. Justice Department begin a civil rights investigation.
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