When the mayor’s office announced last month it would begin accepting applications for two aldermanic positions, many wondered who would apply.
Would it be community leaders, folks with political connections or Average Joes off the street? Since voters won't have a say in Mayor Richard M. Daley's two appointments, the question is all the more intriguing.
But if you want to know who is applying to be the 1st or 29th Ward alderman, you’re out of luck. The city considers information submitted by applicants to be private, and denied a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Current, seeking the names of would-be aldermen.
“To release that information would be a violation of trust and potentially cause them irreparable harm, which could include the loss of their current jobs,” said city Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle.
“Additionally, release of this information could adversely affect the City of Chicago’s ability to attract qualified and capable applicants,“ she said.
The exemption cited by the city says personal information, such as might be included in aldermanic hopefuls’ packets, could be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The state's freedom of information law defines that as information that is “highly personal or objectionable to a reasonable person and in which the subject’s right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining the information.”
But people who have volunteered to be considered for public office should be scrutinized, says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“I fail to see what possible grounds you have for invasion of privacy for someone who’s willing to serve as a public official. When you do that, you give up a lot of your privacy,” she says.
The mayor has 60 days from the time the seats became vacant to name a replacement. Flores resigned on Jan. 15. Carothers resigned on Feb. 1. Daley spokesman Lance Lewis said the mayor intends to name Carothers' replacement in the next few weeks; he wasn't sure when Flores' replacement would be announced.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, says the FOIA law gives governmental bodies the chance to redact some information, like addresses.
“The address perhaps could be redacted, but certainly not the entire application should be denied,” she says.
Not allowing citizens to see who is being considered for the positions is undemocratic, Pastika says
“If you’re going to say we’re going to have an open call for candidates and we’re dedicated to transparency, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” she says. “Actions have to follow words, and in this case it doesn’t appear to be the case.”
Illinois recently revamped its Freedom of Information law, in an effort to be more transparent.
"Today, Illinois comes out of the Stone Age and into the modern era of transparency and openness," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan when the changes were announced in August.
But Dalglish, whose organization monitors government efforts to stifle media inquiries, says Illinois, and Chicago, in particular, has a less than sterling record when it comes to transparency.
“Illinois has among the most backward open records laws in the county and the city of Chicago has a record of being far more restrictive and more likely to violate it than any other body in the state of Illinois,” she says.
The guiding principle of the state FOIA law is that transparency is necessary to allow the public to discuss “public issues fully and freely, making informed polticial judgments and monitoring government to ensure that is being conducted in the public interest.”
When someone wants to run for office, they must register with the Illinois State Board of Elections, making their intentions public record, and giving the public the opportunity to vet a candidate.
“There are many localities in this country where, if you throw your hat in the ring and offer to be a public official, citizens are aware of it and able to comment on your suitability,” Dalglish says.
The city’s interpretation of the FOIA law seems to discount that, she says.
While the city stays mum on who is putting their name in the hat for public office, the state Democratic party is doing the opposite. Just this week the Illinois Democratic Party released an initial list of more than 40 names of people who want to be considered for the party’s nominee as lieutenant governor.
Former Democratic nominee Scott Lee Cohen was forced to step down after allegations of drug use and domestic violence came up after he won the primary election.
The applicants include a former adviser to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and some snarky would-be politicians.
"Nope," was the pithy answer one applicant gave when asked if she had held elective office.
Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party says it’s common sense to provide information on potential nominees.
“We believe it’s important to have some openness,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having lots of information available. We saw what happened with the media and others dropping the ball during the election campaign.”
While the public still has to take the step to learn about a candidate, says Brown, “The best we can do is to put it out there for them.”