Daniel P. Wolk talks with City Bureau about why local public meetings are “the tip of the iceberg,” why Chicago’s Zoning Committee is important to watch ahead of the upcoming aldermanic election and how Documenters are “translating the obscure” for the public good.
By City Bureau
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you first get involved with Documenters?
I have a good friend I talk politics and news with and I was pretty upset after DNAinfo [Chicago] shut down. We were commiserating about it and then she sent me a link to an article about the Documenters program that included an interview with [City Bureau co-founder] Darryl Holliday. I was intrigued. I thought, “This sounds interesting. I’m leading a bit of a reclusive life right now, busy writing. I need to get out of the house, I need to do something, I need to make a little money.” So I just filled out an application and the rest is history.
When it comes to local politics and government, what issues are most important to you?
I’m interested in corruption, government accountability, transparency and public integrity. When I was teaching sociology at a university in Iraqi Kurdistan, we ran up against corruption in a rather sensational way [that] eventually [led to] me getting deported at gunpoint. But my friends at home just said, “Oh yeah, it sounds just like Chicago.” And I’m thinking, “I know Chicago has a history of corruption but not like this!” But that motivated me to get interested in how lack of transparency and corruption works in the United States.
You’ve documented several meetings of the Chicago Board of Ethics recently. What have you learned from your ongoing attendance?
By law, most of what the Chicago Board of Ethics does is confidential because they can’t make the names of government officials under review public unless they find them guilty of something. But during the open part [of] each meeting, [executive director] Steve Berlin gives a summary of his monthly report. I asked him [for a copy] and he was like, “Yeah, it’s not confidential, it’s available to anybody who asks for it.” After the third meeting I asked him for the report again and he wrote me back, “Gee, why should I have to wait for your request each time to send you the actual report? I’ll just post it publicly right away. That’ll make it easier for you and for everybody.” If we, as the public, show more interest in these things I think a lot of officials will share more information.
What’s one topic you think should make the news more?
I’m fascinated by the Zoning Committee. I’ve looked into a couple of the lawyers who presented cases for clients at a recent meeting and they are major contributors to aldermen’s campaign funds. I actually mentioned it to Berlin and he confirmed, “Yeah, it’s legal.” It is formally transparent; the data is open to the public and it’s fun to play around with on Illinois Sunshine, but to turn it into newsworthy material is a challenge. Some committee receives money from some front organization. It would take a lot of work to really see who’s behind that money. But those are the people that run the city.
What have you learned about local politics since becoming a Documenter?
What I find most striking is how public meetings themselves are pretty much the tip of the iceberg. So much of what goes on in government is not necessarily dishonest or corrupt or greedy, but it almost depends on it being obscure to the vast majority of people. I have this little idea that they deliberately make it boring so that people don’t look into it.
What tips do you have for someone attending or documenting a local public meeting?
Get the agenda, go to the committee’s website and learn as much as you can before the meeting.
I used to just report the meeting in the order it happened, but now that I’ve had more experience I try to reorganize [my notes] by key discussions and issues. I’ll go through my notes and try find out what I don’t understand. In one case at City Council I talked to a legislative aide and she gave me the names of the speakers during the public comment period. I tracked them down on the internet and wrote to them. That was helpful. In the case of something like the Board of Ethics, their Twitter account (@ChicagoEthicsBd) is really important because they announce availability of relevant information.
How is a Documenter different from a member of the public or a journalist who covers the meeting for the news?
Any member of the public can go to these meetings but it takes work, it takes discipline, it takes some training to understand what people in government are doing, and only a tiny percentage of what goes on at these meetings is “newsworthy.” Journalists from organizations like WBEZ and The Daily Line go and find the highlights, but there are a lot of important things that are going on that are not highlights. I think Documenters fill an important gap in our public culture: translating the obscure into something that a more general audience can deal with. Hopefully there will always be inquisitive members of the public who will take interest in these things.
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