from the getting-right-in-on-the-eighth-or-ninth-floor-of-the-inevitable dept
Not only is the use of private email accounts to route around public records requests a common practice, it's also an accepted practice. Politicians aren't going to sell out their own in the name of transparency, so there's likely as many private email accounts handling official business as there are government employees. Everyone from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to Gen. Colin Powell has used private email accounts to handle government communications they'd rather not be made public.
The same goes for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. For years, journalists and government transparency groups have been trying (and suing) to get the mayor to turn over city-related emails contained in his personal accounts. To date, the city of Chicago hasn't budged.
But we're living in a "new" era of Chicago-brand transparency -- the aftermath of the city's concerted cover-up of police recordings of the Laquan McDonald shooting. The mayor pledged the city would be more open and forthcoming in the future -- not a difficult promise to make considering there was nowhere to go but up.
Roughly a year after that announcement, one layer of opacity has been peeled back by the mayor's office. Given that it was prompted by multiple lawsuits and unsympathetic court rulings, it's probably best to hold any applause until something more proactive is witnessed.
As a result of a BGA [Better Government Association] investigation and legal action, The City of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have agreed to release all of Emanuel's private emails related to city business—subject to any applicable legal exemptions—and institute a new policy that will ban city employees and officials from using their private email accounts to conduct city business.
The city's change in practices comes in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits filed by the BGA, and separately by the Chicago Tribune, and follows more than a year of hard-fought litigation and rulings by two Cook County judges that public officials’ emails are not outside the scope of FOIA simply because they are on a private account.
If this clenched-teeth transparency sounds familiar, it's probably because Mayor Emanuel -- like the president he briefly worked for -- has promised unheard of levels of transparency…
Emanuel claimed from the start of his tenure at City Hall in 2011 that his leadership would be among the most transparent in the nation.
and delivered almost none of it.
But accessing public records at City Hall—especially documents about hot topics of those pertaining directly to the mayor himself—has often been met with delays, obfuscation or court battles.
And so it goes. This is an important victory for the public, moved along by court rulings stating pretty much the same thing Chicago's administrative branch is only now conceding: official business is official business, whether it's carried out on official email accounts or not. The new policy prompted by lawsuits and court losses orders city employees to push any work-related emails received on personal accounts to their city of Chicago accounts or face whatever form of discipline the city deems appropriate. The latter half of this sentence will dictate the success of the first half, so it's up to city employees to keep other city employees honest. Considering this is Chicago, birthplace of the mobbed-up politician, I expect it will be several more years before the city even begins to approach the lofty transparency goals its own mayor has shown no interest in attaining.