Is the city going to make it harder for reporters to get answers?

If I see another story about how Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration is the most transparent government Chicago's ever seen, I may bang my head against my desk.

Yes, the mayor has put up some public data on the web. That's useful and great. But if you ask most reporters if they've seen a change in the way the city answers questions or gives out data, the answer is no. When it comes to answering real questions or giving us information that we need, it still takes ridiculously long to get an answer.

And now, Emanuel's announced that he may be canning the few people who are supposed to be answering our questions: department public relations staff. Chicago News Cooperative is reporting that the city will begin an audit this week of all city public relations staff with "an eye to trimming the payroll."

“The mayor’s press office is assessing what services are provided in each department’s communications offices, as well as how they are provided, so we can eliminate redundancies and coordinate efforts to save taxpayers money,” Chris Mather, Emanuel's mayor's top press aide, told the cooperative.

As much as I understand what a tough budget situation the city is in, I can't help view this move as an attempt to make my job, and the job of every reporter in this city, that much harder. If I had the power, there are city public relations staff I would fire myself because they're terrible at their jobs. But eliminate positions? We already have a tough enough time getting our questions answered.

For my latest story, it took two city departments a month each to answer my questions. Not to mention the five-month-long battle I'm still waging with the Chicago Public Schools about some relatively simple data. My co-workers, Angela Caputo and Maria Zamudio, fight with city agencies all the time to get public information.

We live in what is arguably the most corrupt city in America. It is often difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to get straight answers out of the people we do have. But at least there is someone to ask.

Mick Dumke wrote a great two-part article for the Chicago Reader on Emanuel's "transparent" administration earlier this month.

"It’s clear there have been improvements under Emanuel," Dumke wrote. "For example, you can now go to the city’s website to find extensive lobbying information, such as who’s sweet-talking city officials and what they’re spending money on.

"On the other hand, the mayor isn’t interested in sharing plenty of other information, such as the records of whom he’s sweet-talking and who’s sweet-talking him," he wrote. "And he’s very open about the fact that he doesn't give a shit what we think about it."

In part two, Dumke details his attempt to get information on the racial makeup of city layoffs by asking for the ZIP code from the address of employees whose jobs will be cut, so he could comparing it to demographic data in our very segregated city. Not too difficult, especially seeing that even Richard M. Daley's administration gave out such data.

It's very common for a reporter to ask city flacks questions and end up filing a Freedom of Information Act request for two reasons: 1) You're specially told you'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get that information, or 2) you get no answer, and so if you want the information, there's no other way.

A city flack actually once told me that she used Freedom of Information Act requests as a way to punish reporters she didn't like. I have now ended up on that flack's black list. Dumke says he's been told that the city takes all five days they're given by law to respond to your request, even if its response is to tell you that you sent the request to the wrong department.

All of this seems like inside baseball if you're not a journalist. But how the city responds to requests for information is actually incredibly important to the average citizen. Take Angela Caputo's landmark investigation on how the Chicago Housing Authority uses its one-strike eviction law. Caputo battled with CHA for months and finally got data that no city reporter had ever been able to get their hands on. Nearly every investigative story you see uncovering Chicago corruption is the result of dogged pursuit of information by city journalists. Think of what our city could be like if journalists didn't have to wage war against the city for every name, number and ZIP code.

And now, they're cutting the people who routinely tell us no anyway. Maybe that would save taxpayers some cash and us reporters some frustration? But I, for one, liked pretending that my job wasn't entirely futile.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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