Chicago payouts for settling open records lawsuits jumped 20x in 2016

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed repeatedly to transform Chicago from a clout-heavy city shrouded in secrecy to a beacon of transparency.

“You have the right to ask for information. We have a responsibility to get that information. I am consistent with my pledge no matter what you will opine upon it …” Emanuel told Chicago Tribune reporter David Kidwell in 2012.

But in 2016, Chicago paid more than $670,000 in legal settlements related to violations of open records laws meant to hold public officials accountable, according to the Tribune.

That’s nearly 20 times more than it paid out in 2015, and five times what the city shelled out in the previous eight years combined.

The massive payments came from 27 different cases involving the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, including journalist Brandon Smith’s lawsuit that resulted in the release of the video showing Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing Laquan McDonald . The city’s fight to keep that video under wraps put taxpayers on the hook for nearly $100,000 in settlement costs.

The city paid nearly as much to settle a lawsuit brought by the Better Government Association over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s use of personal email to conduct city business.

The city’s abnormally large payments for FOIA lawsuits in 2016 appear to fly in the face of the mayor’s pledge.

Of the 27 different cases the city settled, 19 involved the Chicago Police Department, or CPD. The CPD has a disturbing transparency record.

In fact, a requirement to destroy nearly all records of complaints against officers after five years is enshrined in the department’s collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police.

Chicago’s culture of corruption has many consequences, including distrust of government and a toxic business climate. But its direct cost to taxpayers might sting the most.

In 2016, Chicagoans experienced the year of the tax hike.

Residents saw a record-breaking hike in their property taxes, a water and sewer tax hike, a new Airbnb tax, a new satellite TV tax, a new plastic bag tax and a county-level sales tax hike that made Chicago’s sales tax to the highest in the nation among big cities.

But while the city continues to lean on taxpayers, officials have made costly mistakes that squandered valuable resources.

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