It's Emanuel's way of keeping his promise to create "the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen."
The mayor refused Tribune requests for his emails, government cellphone bills and his interoffice communications with top aides, arguing it would be too much work to cross out information the government is allowed to keep private. After lengthy negotiations to narrow its request for two months of these records, the newspaper was told that almost all of the emails had been deleted.
Emanuel's response is in keeping with that of his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, who repeatedly denied similar requests under the state's Freedom of Information Act. But it's not the practice in major cities across the nation.
A Tribune survey found such records are routinely available — in many cases with a phone call or an email request — in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Seattle. In Illinois, it only took a phone call to Gov. Pat Quinn's office to get the August bill for his taxpayer-funded cellphone.
Throughout his campaign and from his earliest days as mayor, Emanuel has said a more open government is critical to "change the culture" at City Hall and restore public confidence in government. Specifically, he highlights his efforts to provide online access to a mountain of public records: city contracts, crime statistics, lobbyists' client lists and tax incentives.
"We have made a tremendous amount of information — as it relates to city government — public for the first time," Emanuel said recently.
But Emanuel balks when asked to show how he developed major initiatives that reach into taxpayers' pockets — raising fees for car stickers and water, installing speed cameras or pushing for a city-owned casino.
Much of what the mayor does remains secret — who he seeks out for advice, how he communicates with his staff, anything that might offer insight into the genesis of his ideas. Requests for such records flow through his press staff , and the results are familiar to anyone who has tried to shake loose public records under the state's weak Freedom of Information Act.
City officials routinely invoke the legal right to a two-week extension to comply with records requests, only to reject them. Weeks of negotiations may follow. Like the game "Battleship" where players try to guess the location of hidden ships, officials frequently ask that requests be narrowed and then respond that such records don't exist. In the end those seeking records are often left with only one option — a potentially expensive and drawn-out legal fight.
"Of course it is possible to get records out of the mayor's office," Emanuel's communications director, Chris Mather, told the Tribune. "The problem here is not with the mayor's office, but with your request."
Emanuel refused requests for an interview about his record on transparency.
Open records advocates praised the new mayor for allowing taxpayers access to so much information without having to file a time-consuming public records request. But they said transparency includes the release of records — such as email strings — that offer more insight into how Emanuel governs.
"The city of Chicago's response to these requests is unacceptable," said Terry Pastika, director of Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a lawyer who helped revise the state's records law. "These are all clearly public records. They should be disclosed, and if they are unable to comply with such routine records requests then they need to take a long look at the way they maintain the public's records."
In July, the Tribune asked for two months of cellphone bills, emails and interoffice communications for Emanuel, chief of staff Theresa Mintle and three other top aides, in an effort to discern who the mayor talks with, how his deputies run the sprawling bureaucracy and how competing interests at City Hall seek to influence Emanuel's command of the $6 billion government.
The few records the city released provide very little insight into Emanuel's management style, his phalanx of close advisers or the parade of businesspeople and lobbyists who jockey for a tiny slice of his time.
In addition to the emails and phone bills, the newspaper also asked for the mayor's appointment books, visitor logs and calendars. The city did provide some records, including Emanuel's daily calendar and a log of correspondence from citizens. Officials said there is no visitors' log.
But the administration denied the requests for emails and internal memos under a commonly used exemption in the law for requests deemed "unduly burdensome." The press office said it would take too much effort to sift through some 28,000 emails and 25,000 paper documents to redact information allowed to be kept secret under other exemptions in the law.