Group says 19 aldermen use personal email for city business
A government accountability task force revealed in a recent report that several Chicago aldermen have been using their private email account to conduct city businesses.
Project Six, has divulged that 19 aldermen are using private, unsecured and untrackable email accounts to conduct government activities.
Nathaniel Hamilton, director of Marketing and Communications for Project Six, said with the national attention on transparency over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, there should be no excuse for the use of private emails.
“At this day and age with all the discussions that we have seen in the public sphere from Secretary Clinton’s emails to Mayor Emanuel, there is really no excuse for a city alderman to be using a private email account or server to conduct city business,” Hamilton told Chicago City Wire. “We hope that this activity stops and Chicagoans are able to have a transparent government that will allow them to see if their elected officials are serving them best.”
The group found that city aldermen failed in their transparency. Hamilton discussed their methods of investigation.
“We just wanted to find out in what ways are Chicago government and Chicago officials operating with transparency,” he said. “The base level for that are email correspondences. We looked at what email addresses Chicago aldermen are using.”
It is city policy for every city employee to be issued an official city of Chicago email address. This includes city aldermen, Hamilton said. The addresses are maintained, managed and housed on secure servers. This sort of management provides security and transparency, according to Hamilton.
“From a government transparency viewpoint, all those emails are subject to the Freedom of Information requests,” he said. “Reporters, citizens…anyone can request information on what officials are discussing or what materials they are passing back and forth with exceptions for confidential or personal information.”
He asserted that everything discussed on city emails are subject to transparency laws and transparency requests. Knowing that, the group examined what email addresses the city aldermen were actually using.
“So we looked at what emails aldermen are actually using in their day-to-day city business,” Hamilton said. “We went through and looked at aldermen’s websites they have for ward information, the emails that are provided on the actual city of Chicago website section for wards, and then any social media accounts for their offices – not their personal Facebook account but for their ward.”
Hamilton asserted that if a city alderman used a personal email address that is outside the official “CityofChicago.org” address, such as a Gmail or a private domain, then that alderman is considered to have been using said private email account for city businesses due to having their contact information displayed on their ward and government site.
This is a problem because it hinders transparency, Hamilton said. The public should be able to see how their elected officials are conducting themselves in their office, how they are spending tax dollars, and how they are deciding the laws and ordinances to pass and the policies of the city.
“All that is important as we have seen with all the different kinds of cases on the national level with Secretary Clinton’s usage of emails, all the way down to here in Chicago with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s use of private emails and the University of Illinois’ chancellor using private emails to dodge the public record,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton insisted that, from a transparency standpoint, it is the right of the public -- whether is the media, private citizens or government watchdogs -- to see how their elected officials are operating in their offices.
“It is, as we’ve seen, the best way to see if there is corruption happening and/or to act as a deterrent (for corruption),” he said. “From a transparency standpoint, that is a huge reason for these systems to be used correctly.”
From a security standpoint, usage of private emails poses a security risk.
“Aldermen and elected officials have access to constituents’ personal information such as their addresses,” Hamilton said. “So if (the aldermen) are talking back and forth in their emails and corresponding with an individual and they are using a private email, that is not something that is on the city’s servers that we know are up to date on security measures.”
From both sides of transparency and security, using private emails poses a risk to the public. This is why it perplexed Hamilton when the city of Chicago Law Department issued a statement declaring that aldermen are not subject to FOIA unless they use city-issued email addresses, despite being elected public servants.
Hamilton argued that aldermen are public servants and still fall under the jurisdiction of the law in regards to transparency laws.
“Like we saw with previous court cases such as when The Chicago Tribune sued Mayor Emanuel to release his emails on his private email account that was dealing with city business,” Hamilton said. “The judge said that the most important (aspect) on any of these request is what exactly is in these emails. So if an email or text message is dealing with city business or official government activities, then that is subject to public information requests.”
Hamilton asserted that despite carelessness or a city official trying to purposely keep records out of the public eye, those records still need to be turned over because they are information important to the public.
The most frustrating part is having a judge enforce the law.
“Even with that kind of precedence from the courts and city policy, it does require someone to file a lawsuit,” he said. “It still takes a judge forcing an elected official…to actually turn these over.”
Hamilton concluded that he found the statement issued by the city’s law department perplexing.
“It’s surprising to see the law enforcement try and come up with creative exemptions for aldermen despite the fact that (aldermen) are public servants and elected officials,” he said. “Their emails should be subject to government transparency laws just like every other elected official in Illinois and across the country. Chicago aldermen are not exempt from government transparency.”
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