Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused for months to release public records that could shed light on his controversial speed camera plan while he persuaded state lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn to turn it into law.
Now that the mayor has released a small number of the requested documents, even that incomplete portrait raises new questions about how the plan was developed and sold.
City Hall's misstatements about a pedestrian safety crisis, the role of a well-connected speed camera lobbyist and how the mayor linked the death of a little girl to his campaign for cameras even though the devices wouldn't have saved her.
Emanuel's successful campaign to legalize speed cameras near schools and parks provides a case study in how the hard-charging rookie mayor governs and at the same time offers a yardstick to measure his pledge to restore transparency and trust at City Hall.
The mayor, in a spirited interview in his City Hall office last week, said his camera push was "upfront and public" and will make the streets safer.
"I think what people want to know and they will judge me on, as you said the taxpayers, am I getting the job done?" Emanuel said. "They will hold me accountable, and their job is to see what I am doing on a day-to-day basis and to see if I am doing what I pledged to do. ... I am making government information available. I am making sure people have access to it. I am bringing back a level of trust."
The stakes are high. The new law means roughly half the city could be covered by automated devices that would tag speeders with tickets up to $100, potentially raising more than the $69 million annual take from red light cameras. Emanuel has framed the issue as a critical child safety initiative and suggested that people who question the initiative — including those who accuse him of a money grab — are insensitive to the plight of children.
During the 90-minute interview, Emanuel repeatedly accused the newspaper of downplaying the safety benefits of cameras by ignoring a city study that he said shows red light cameras have reduced nearby fatalities by 60 percent.
"I've had people call you with it, and you refuse to publish it," he said.
"If the report is wrong you should go analyze that report," Emanuel said.
But his press secretary later said the report could not be provided to the newspaper because key portions were "confidential."
The Emanuel administration used similar language to reject the vast majority of the newspaper's Oct. 27 Freedom of Information Act request for any administration records and correspondence that would explain the underpinnings of the speed camera plan.
The request covered internal communications, among them email messages, visitor logs, phone records, reports and memos. Administration lawyers cited a provision in Illinois' open records law allowing for — but not mandating — the withholding of "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated."
Steve Patton, Emanuel's corporation counsel, said the city intends to adhere to the records law but sees no need to disclose more than required.
"If you've got a beef with that, then you need to take it up with the state legislature," he said.
The chief of staff to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who arbitrates public records disputes, said the office encourages government agencies to be more forthcoming than the law requires.
"We advocate that public bodies should try to interpret any exemption with an eye toward disclosure," said Ann Spillane. "We encourage public officials to be thoughtful when interpreting it, but that said, the exemption is broad and the courts have interpreted it broadly."
As mayor, Emanuel has vowed to weed out aloofness and mystery from city government and make it more responsive and accessible to taxpayers. At Emanuel's direction, the city has posted on its website payrolls, databases and other records that long had been held out of general public view.
At the same time, however, Emanuel mounts a spirited defense of his need for some measure of secrecy in obtaining advice and formulating policy.
Emanuel withholds most records detailing push for speed cameras
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.