Transparency On City Officials Need Be Neither Invasive Nor “Arduous” (Updated 02.21.12)


In our post “Time For Transparency On Both Elected And Appointed Officials” (01.17.12) we advocated the posting on the City’s website of more information about our public officials – especially our appointed ones on boards, commissions and task forces who don’t go through the electoral process and, consequently, can be pretty much unknown quantities to the people they represent and serve.

That post received only 5 comments until this past Thursday (02.16.12), when a stream of critical comments commenced.  We can only assume that the new interest in this topic – primarily by one commentator posting under 2-3 monikers – was prompted by the City’s posting of its agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting, which includes both a “Transparency Report” item and the appointment/re-appointment of 11 persons to City boards and commissions.   

In the first portion of that Transparency Report, City Mgr. Jim Hock notes that the City’s performance on the Illinois Policy Institute’s transparency analysis is 68.5%, good for 24th place among the rated governmental bodies.  The City is the only governmental body from our community listed by IPI, so 24th place is better than a no-show, even if 68.5% tends to be a “D” in most grading systems.

City Information Director Diane Nelson’s portion of the Transparency Report, however, reveals her concerns that, as to the information about board, commission and task force appointees contained in their application forms, “the current form has information that would need to be redacted before posting”; and that, because “we didn’t tell applicants at the time of completion [and submission of the application forms] that they would be published, [the successful applicants] may have some objections or concerns.”

Such concerns are to be expected from local officials whose governmental bodies have operated for so long in secrecy and semi-secrecy.  Not surprisingly, and as is apparent from Nelson’s memorandum, even this modest effort at transparency came not from staff but “in response to the mayor’s request.”

If we can view this as a “teaching moment,” however, we would remind Ms. Nelson and all City officials of Jefferson’s admonition: “When a man assumes a public trust he should consider himself a public property.” 

All of these board, commission and task force members voluntarily sought appointment as public officials, with all the powers and the public trust that come with it.  While that doesn’t require them to open up their homes, refrigerators, sock drawers and tax returns to public scrutiny, even Atty. Gen. Madigan’s FOIA Guide states (at Page 17) that “basic identification” – such as names, addresses, and other information that is sufficiently well-known so as not to constitute “confidential or private” information – is not protected from disclosure by FOIA; nor is any other information “bearing on the public duties of public employees or officials…[to] be considered an invasion of personal privacy” (at Page 18).

The fact that all of the information requested by the City’s standard form Application is part of the process for assessing the applicant’s qualifications for appointment to public office suggests that such information “[bears] on the public duties of public…officials” within the disclosure provisions of FOIA.  And unless those applicants submitted their applications with a prior agreement from the City that the contents would be kept confidential, we are aware of nothing in FOIA or City ordinances requiring confidentiality.

That’s one problem solved.

As for Ms. Nelson’s more mundane concerns about the “extremely arduous task” of “[l]ocating, organizing, redacting, scanning and posting over 200 of these forms,” we would expect that somewhere over in City Hall is a drawer holding a file jacket with a label that reads “Boards & Commissions Applications” that should make the “locating” part a relatively non-“arduous” 10-second task.  And if there isn’t such a drawer or file, then somebody over at City Hall has some ‘splainin’ to do, because there darn well should be.   

With the “locating” part out of the way, in order to spare City staff the burdens of “organizing, redacting [and] scanning” those application forms (and spare the taxpayers the indirect costs thereof), this blog volunteers the services of its editor in that regard.  Given how Park Ridge simply adores volunteerism (isn’t that right, Taste Inc.?), how can the City not jump at this offer?  Heck, we won’t even try to skim the first $20,000 of savings for ourselves.

As for better information about the elected officials, let’s start with: name; residence address; City contact information (i.e., phone number and e-mail address); occupation; current/most recent employer; educational background (as on board/committee/commission application); and any prior City or local governmental position and experience.  That should provide the average citizen with far more relevant information about City officials than is currently available, accessible 24/7. 

And for those wanting even more information, there’s always the FOIA request.

BTW, how’s your FOIA request coming along, Ald. Bernick?

UPDATE:  Last night the City deferred discussion of the mayor’s “transparency” initiative to next Monday’s Council COW meeting.  Hopefully there will be a meaningful debate on this important issue, considering how many appointed officials fill the City’s boards, committees, commissions and task forces that wield some significant power over City issues and finances – despite literally nothing but their names currently posted on the City’s website.

Frankly, we look forward to hearing the objections from any officials who have a problem with the posting of the applications they filed with the City – albeit with their residence addresses and other contact information redacted, if they insist – in order to demonstrate their qualifications for appointment/reappointment.  And while they’re at it, hopefully those folks around The Horseshoe will discuss beefing up their own on-line resumes for public consumption.

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