It takes time and patience to get information about the hundreds of millions of dollars in TIF money the city of Chicago has paid to companies and nonprofits over the last decade.
It was supposed to get easier for everyday citizens to find tax increment financing documents. In 2009, the Chicago City Council approved the Sunshine Ordinance, which requires the city to put online searchable copies of every redevelopment agreement that has closed since July 30, 2004.
But when a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists began investigating the TIF program in September, many of the agreements covered by the new law weren’t available on the city’s web site and had to be requested through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
In some cases, the public documents were provided by the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development within days. But in other cases, it took several weeks to get the agreements.
The state’s FOIA law requires government to respond to requests for public records within five days. It states “a fundamental obligation of government is to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible.”
At least a dozen other agreements signed before July 30, 2004 – and not covered under the city’s sunshine ordinance – weren’t available online, but after repeated requests for the information, the city began posting some of the documents.
The redevelopment agreements – some more than 100 pages – detail how taxpayer dollars are to be spent, describe how the project will be developed and, in some cases, includes the number of jobs a company or developer promises to create or retain.
In one case, reporters waited more than two months for the agreement for a housing development on the city’s South Side. For weeks, reporters were told the city’s community development agency was waiting for the city’s law department to hand over the document.
Emily Miller, policy and government affairs coordinator for the Better Government Association, said it’s not unusual for the city to take this long to provide a public document.
“I think it’s disappointing,” she said. “I don’t think it’s surprising.”
Molly Sullivan, director of communications for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, told one ChicagoTalks reporter that not all of the agreements are available online for “certain reasons” without elaborating.
Under Chicago’s Sunshine Ordinance, other key documents – including economic disclosure statements, certificates of completion and staff reports – must be put on the city’s web site, yet in many cases these records aren’t available.
In mid-October, when ChicagoTalks requested the certificate of completion for each of the 171 private-sector TIF projects, as well as any audits or other documents that show a developer reporting progress on the number of jobs created or retained, Sullivan said it would take a long time to find the information.
She explained the records would have to be hand-pulled from boxes held in off-site storage. When two ChicagoTalks team members offered at different points to help Sullivan find the public documents, she said, “You can’t. We don’t allow people from the public to come in and just go through the boxes without our viewing them first.”
In late December, after several more inquiries from reporters, the housing and economic development agency handed over a disc containing certificates of completion – the city-issued document that certifies that all the requirements in a redevelopment agreement have been met – for 90 projects. Only 29 certificates of completion for all the projects listed on the city’s web site are available to the public; to get the rest a citizen would have to submit a FOIA – and wait.
Other information that had been requested, including audits and other documentation showing how the city monitors each project, was not provided.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work, said Terry Norton, the director for The Center for Open Government based at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
“They’re not obeying the FOIA statute. That’s not even making an effort,” Norton said.
Civic watchdog Daniel X. O’Neil agrees.
As a co-founder of EveryBlock, O’Neil routinely requests public information such as crime stats, property data and business licenses from the city.
O’Neil said the city has broken the law in at least two ways – by failing to comply with the state’s FOIA law – which requires government agencies to respond to requests for public information within five business days – and the city’s Sunshine Ordinance that requires many of the TIF records to be available online.
Norton said it’s “outrageous” that some documents required by the Sunshine Ordinance aren’t available on the city’s web site.
“This is the opposite of sunshine – it’s darkness,” he said.
Transparency is the key to better understanding tax increment financing, O’Neil said.
“We don’t have a very good view in to what’s getting done with TIFs,” O’Neil said. “I think it’s a financial tool that has a role in the governance, and, just like any other tool, it needs to be monitored and optimized.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the co-author of the Sunshine Ordinance, said he’s disappointed with the law.
“I’ll be honest, it didn’t really work the way I had thought it would,” he said. “We really wanted to go 20 years back from the original TIFs and get all that documentation up. They [the Daley administration] literally claimed they don’t know where the documents are – which is kind of mind-boggling.”
Waguespack thinks there’s a reason why the Daley administration wouldn’t allow the earlier years of public documents to be put online, where anyone in the public could easily view them.
“My thought is that they didn’t want to put a lot of it up because they know there is some really bad stuff in those documents, and they don’t want to get it out,” the alderman said.
Officials deny that.
In a written statement, Susan Bisno Massel, director of public information for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, said the city has made “every effort” to post as many documents as possible – especially those requested under the Freedom of Information Act — and the assertion that some documents are withheld because they contain incriminating evidence is “completely untrue.”
“We are continually trying to post all information on line and nothing has been deliberately left off,” Massel wrote, noting the city has made available redevelopment plans, eligibility studies and other information.
During its four-month investigation, the ChicagoTalks team created a searchable map of all 171 TIF projects dating back to 2000, linking each project to its redevelopment agreement.
When asked why the city doesn’t provide such a map on its web site, Massel wrote, “There are always ways we can improve how we can provide information and as our resources allow, we are looking into providing mapping in the future.”
The failure to make these public records available in a useful format to citizens is one of the biggest problems with Chicago’s TIF program, said Kate Piercy, director of government reform at the conservative Illinois Policy Institute.
“If you can’t follow the money, there is no accountability, and no accountability leads to the abuse of taxpayers’ money,” Piercy said.
“If you can’t hold your elected officials accountable, that’s kind of the end of it. Transparency is supposed to foster that accountability … if that’s not there, the TIF issue is never going to be fixed.”
Click here to read the other story in this series.
This story was reported by Caitlin Bukowski, Ellyn Fortino, K. Herron, Becca James, Meghan Keyes, Tony Merevick, Margaret Smith, Taryn S. Smith and Mika Tatich. Derek Eder created the searchable map.
To contact us about this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org