CHICAGO — Last summer, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office revamped a committee, saying it would hold the city “accountable and increase transparency” for its efforts to reduce violence. Six months later, the committee has met just once, behind closed doors.
The secrecy comes after a year of historically high violence in the city made worse by the pandemic, with more than 3,000 people injured in shootings and nearly 800 killed. The Violence Prevention Planning Committee met once in December, a gathering that was not open to the public. In other words, some of the people in Chicago who are directly affected by the trauma of gun violence can’t watch or weigh in on the city’s most significant effort to stop it. The committee is so obscure that some local anti-violence workers were surprised to learn that the group had met at all.
“The city has decided to deal with violence from a public relations perspective, because the allocations and public resources [needed to address it] are just too much,” said Lance Williams, an urban community studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University. “You cannot quarantine these problems of violence.”
When he recently learned about the December meeting, Williams, who spent most of his career in violence prevention, said, “Wow, I asked around to see if anybody had been invited to the committee, and no one seemed to know.”
Four people who serve on the committee said they didn’t understand why the meetings aren’t public.
“We were excited about this public accountability mechanism,” said Kim Smith, director of programs at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. “I didn’t really appreciate that the meetings were not open to the public.”
Eddie Bocanegra, another committee member, directs READI Chicago, a jobs training program centered on men who are most likely to be involved in gun violence. “I think there should be transparency even if it’s simply listening in,” he said.
‘More transparency is very rarely a bad thing’
This is not the first time Lightfoot’s administration has skirted open meetings laws when discussing crucial city issues, even after she campaigned on increased transparency.
Lightfoot debuted the Our City, Our Safety plan last summer, with anti-violence leaders curious to see how the administration would pull off its violence reduction efforts while facing a $1 billion budget deficit and the pandemic. The report highlighted the Violence Prevention Planning Committee as an accountability measure to ensure that the city was on track to meet the report’s goals. The mayor’s team leads the committee, which is stacked with at least 90 members who represent a mix of 60 private and public organizations. The VPPC met on Dec. 17th, and will continue to meet every six months through the end of Lightfoot’s first term in 2023.
A slide presentation that The Trace obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows that in December, the committee discussed various aspects of the city’s violence prevention plan and broke into smaller groups to provide feedback.
Smith, who serves on the committee, said that although the VPPC doesn’t make direct policy decisions, it’s influential. “The conversation does obviously, I think, inform policymakers — and they are the ones who will eventually be making decisions about the people and places where resources should be going,” she said.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act requires all local and state governments, including advisory bodies, to conduct and discuss business publicly — with the exception of sensitive employee or legal matters. But the mayor’s office says it doesn’t believe this committee is subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act since the committee is exclusively advising them, and no other government bodies.
The Trace filed a complaint with the state’s Public Access Counselor to review whether the committee is violating the law. The counselor sided with Lightfoot’s team, saying that because the committee is advising the Mayor’s Office — and not a legislative body, like the City Council — it is not considered a public body subject to open meetings. The counselor does not consider the VPPC an advisory body, but said it is exempt because it is weighing in on the mayor’s violence reduction efforts.
Despite several attempts by The Trace to interview someone from the Mayor’s Office, Lightfoot’s team did not provide any staffers for an on-the-record interview, nor did they say why they didn’t do that.
The mayor’s communications team said in an emailed statement: “These bi-annual meetings remain strictly advisory and due to the important nature of this work, committee members are better able to freely express their ideas, concerns, and inform one another of their ongoing work in this nonpublic setting.”
While Smith agrees with the Mayor’s Office’s concerns, she said governments should share the work they’re doing with the public. “If decisions are being made about public resources and how those are being funded, residents have a right to know about what’s being said.”
Other committee members said the meetings could be public even if they weren’t sure how it would work logistically. The Mayor’s Office says it plans to release a public progress report on its violence prevention efforts later this summer.
Similarly, Kerri Milita, a political science professor at Illinois State University, thinks the meetings should be open to the public. “Reducing violence in the city is very much a public interest,” she said. “More transparency is very rarely a bad thing.”
Earlier this month, the Better Government Association found that the inner-dealings of a committee that the Mayor’s Office created to vet the removal of several city monuments were kept private. Last year, ProPublica Illinois reported that Lightfoot held secret conference calls with city aldermen.
Attorney and open government expert Matt Topic disagrees with the city’s behavior. “Even if they can withhold information, they [could] choose to meet in public anyway because they value transparency,” he said, “consistently this administration has utterly failed to do that.”
Topic, whose firm represented The Trace in a lawsuit, said Lightfoot’s administration is no better or worse than that of her predecessors. He said open government is often difficult for officials since they might face scrutiny or political setbacks.
‘Feels like being ignored’
Most of the people who make up the committee are directors and high-level staffers from Chicago’s most prominent gun violence prevention circles, including philanthropic funders, researchers, and anti-violence groups, according to records The Trace obtained through FOIA. Absent are everyday community members and young people, as well as some of the city’s more grassroots violence prevention groups.
Forty percent of the more than 90 people listed as attending the meeting worked for city, county, and state government, records show. Committee members come from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Chicago Police Department, and Chicago Public Schools, to name a few.
Susan Lee, the city’s former deputy mayor for public safety, is also listed as attending. Lee left her role as deputy mayor shortly after Our City, Our Safety published. She now works for Chicago CRED, a privately funded gun violence reduction group.
Some violence prevention workers The Trace spoke with did not understand why they were excluded, but chalked it up to politics.
LeVon Stone Sr. is the founder of Acclivus, a Black-led organization focused on violence prevention and hospital outreach. “It almost feels like being ignored,” Stone said. “We’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years, and when people talk about violence prevention, I would think they’d consider our agency a true stakeholder.”
Pastor Corey Brooks leads Project H.O.O.D., a violence prevention group on the city’s South Side, said he’s glad the committee exists and that organizations aren’t as siloed as they once were, but was disappointed to hear the meetings are closed. “I’m surprised that they would do it in this season — with all the things that are going on with the pandemic, the protests, the violence — but that’s the Chicago way,” he said.
Lightfoot’s office also didn’t inviteBrooks’s organization to serve on the committee. “When it comes to community violence, you can’t use a top-down approach,” Brooks said. “You got to get people who live in the community, who are intimately involved in the day-to-day issues, or you’re never going to solve anything.”
He says city officials tend to pay more attention to gun violence when it becomes a political problem.
“If this summer goes the way that things have been going, I think there will come a point of reckoning,” Brooks said. “Sometimes we focus so much politically, that we forget we’re dealing with real people.”