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City Bureau’s Open Gov Report Card Gives A Big-Picture Look At Transparency In Chicago — And It’s Not Pretty

Nearly 150 of Chicago's public agencies averaged a D-minus on transparency and accessibility, according to a new City Bureau report.

City Bureau ranked the transparency surrounding public meetings in the neighborhoods — and many of them scored poorly.
Bob Chiarito / Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — As Chicago Public School students received their report cards last week, nearly 150 local public agencies received a report card too.

Let’s hope the kids did better than the agencies, which averaged a D-minus grade on transparency and public accessibility, according to Woodlawn-based nonprofit news lab City Bureau.

City Bureau decided to release the Open Gov Report Card to show how much the city’s public bodies adhere to the Open Meetings Act. They also ranked organizations based on a set of transparency criteria.

Among the 11 criteria:

  • The agencies have a website;
  • Meeting schedules, agendas, minutes and recordings are posted online;
  • Attendees can speak about anything during public comment sessions, and don’t have to register ahead of time; and
  • Meetings are rarely canceled, and scheduled at various times to accommodate attendees’ schedules.

The report card grew out of City Bureau’s City Scrapers program, where hard-to-find data on public meetings is “scraped” and compiled into a database, City Bureau web developer Pat Sier said.

Over the last few months, Sier and other participants analyzed the data, assigning criteria to figure out what it could say about transparency in government.

Participants in the outlet’s Documenters initiative, which trains and pays residents to monitor local government, contributed information they gathered while on assignment, Sier said.

The report card is not “the be-all, end-all of transparency,” he said, but rather a general benchmark to compare agencies.

For example, the Chicago Police Board received a middling C grade, despite its history of running background checks on public commenters.

SSA #42, which scored a B — tied for the highest grade of any SSA — recently violated the Open Meetings Act to discuss with event planners why its summer festival went so far over budget.

After setting the criteria, developers “couldn’t add additional categories just to call out something particularly egregious,” Sier said. On the flip side, there are also “examples of agencies doing more proactive things that aren’t really reflected in the score.”

The results might be dismal, but the report card is “not all to be doom and gloom, bashing on a lot of these agencies,” he said.

The developers hope it can be a tool to inform residents of outlets for civic engagement, while encouraging improvement from the lower-scoring agencies.

“Part of what we want people to know is not just, ‘Everything is going poorly,’ but a bit of a know-your-rights outlook — here are the things these agencies owe you,” Sier said. “You can attend them, have a place in them and look up what they’re doing with your local tax dollars.”

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