Chicago’s City Clerk Doubles Down to Keep Records Secret

In their fight to keep a set of public records hidden from public scrutiny, the Clerk’s office sent a letter to the Attorney General’s office basing their legal defense on unsubstantiated claims and aspersions against the man requesting the records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ironically, the Clerk even used the fact the requestor was featured in a recent Chicago Tribune story about FOIA as justification to deny his FOIA request.

45th Ward resident Pete Czosnyka filed a FOIA request in March for residential parking permit letters of exception issued by Alderman Gardiner’s office. These letters allow the recipient to purchase a permit in a nearby residential parking permit zone, which would otherwise be disallowed if they do not live within the zone.

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia and Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th)

Why would Czosnyka want something so mundane? And why would the Clerk’s office want to hide portions of these records from public inspection?

We’ll get to the second question. The answer to the first question is key to understanding this story — but it’s also important to know that under FOIA statute, why someone asks for records is irrelevant. Information is either subject to disclosure or it’s not. Government agencies do not get to arbitrarily decide who they release records to and who they do not and requestors do not have to explain why they want information.

Note: there are some exceptions regarding intent when requests serve a commercial purpose, which is not the case here.

The United States Supreme Court has explained that the, “basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed. FOIA is often explained as a means for citizens to know ‘what their Government is up to.’”

The backstory on Czosnyka’s request is best summarized in this March story by CBS 2’s Dana Koslov, who investigated Gardiner’s decision to create a new residential parking permit zone, potentially to retaliate against an area building owner who made critical comments about Gardiner on Facebook. By creating the new permit zone, some of the residents in this building, some who are handicapped, are now forced to park several blocks away.

Aldermen have two tools at their disposal to solve problems when residential parking permits create a shortage of parking around the corner or on adjacent blocks: they can designate blocks of addresses as “buffer zones”, allowing residents outside of a zone to purchase a nearby zone permit, or aldermen can issue exception letters to allow specific individuals the same right to buy permits. Gardiner’s position was that he couldn’t make an exception for residents of this building because it would set a bad precedent.

The day after the CBS story, documents obtained via FOIA showed that Gardiner had in fact created buffer zones for other residents in the ward and had issued 91 individual letters of exception to residents since January 2020. Two of those exceptions were even for this same zone where he refused to issue any of these building tenants an exception.

Gardiner then changed his story, saying he has only ever issued exceptions to residents “adjacent to the street” Gardiner said. In multiple social media replies to residents questioning him about this permit issue, Gardiner claimed both exceptions for this zone were for tenants in a corner building at 4822 W. Montrose Ave.

Ald. Gardiner comment on social media stating both exceptions were in the same corner building, and the exceptions were only granted because it was a corner building.

Nadig Newspapers reported the same claim, adding, “Gardiner has issued at least one letter of exception for a tenant at 4822 W. Montrose who was seeking a permit.” At least one letter. Gardiner only furnished Nadig with evidence of the address for one exception, not two.

Adding to the questions, our own FOIA revealed an email from a city employee in the Department of Finance to an employee in the Clerk’s office asking the Clerk to assist Gardiner’s staff in locating the second exception letter because he and his staff couldn’t find it. The email implies that they either don’t know what address was covered in the second letter or they know it’s for a different address but aren’t sure what it is. This email was sent after Gardiner told Nadig that both letters were for the same corner building.

Email obtained via FOIA demonstrating Ald. Gardiner’s staff did not know where the second exception was located, after Gardiner said both were in the same corner building.

This brings us back to the Clerk’s office. When the two letters of exception were requested, the Clerk redacted all information that would demonstrate whether the recipient lived in the corner building or not. They hid the information that would tell us whether the alderman was being truthful, or telling a convenient lie.

We made the same request for this information that Czosnyka made with the same result, as have others. The Clerk claims that revealing a street address or a name is an invasion of privacy.

Czosnyka appealed the Clerk’s determination to the Public Access Counselor (PAC), an office in the Illinois Attorney General’s office which adjudicates appeals of agencies’ FOIA determinations. The PAC determined that Czosnyka’s case warranted further investigation, issuing a formal letter to the Clerk’s office requiring them to share the unredacted records in question with the PAC for review and to provide any additional explanation for their redactions which the PAC should consider.

The Clerk’s lawyer replied to the PAC with a letter that not only argued why names and addresses should be considered private (despite the PAC previously issuing a determination that names are not private information), but they began speculating about Czosnyka’s motives, arguing the information should not be shared specifically with Czosnyka.

The Clerk’s letter states:

“With the increased use of social media, social blogs, and the internet comes the increase of social media bullying, stalking, and harassment. The release of names would reveal distinguishing information about the individual with just a simple google search... In our case, Mr. Czosnyka not only lives in the 45th Ward, he has a well-developed social media blog that has been known to harass elected officials. By divulging the names of local residents of the 45th Ward, down to the actual zone one lives (as this information was not redacted), Mr. Czosnyka can be afforded enough information to stalk and harass residents.”

We do not know to what “well-developed social media blog” the Clerk refers. And “harass elected officials” is an opinion and judgement. Many elected officials equate scrutiny and accountability to “harassment.”

There is an irony here that the Clerk asserts, without evidence, that they are justified in withholding this information because Czosnyka could use this information to “stalk and harass residents” when in fact Czosnyka is attempting to unearth information that could demonstrate whether Gardiner is being honest in his own explanations about a situation where Gardiner appears to be using his administrative powers to harass a building owner and her tenants.

Remember, when it comes to a history of stalking and harassment, it is Gardiner who previously had a restraining order against him, is currently being sued in federal court for civil rights violations against a ward resident, targeted another resident for harassment by city inspectors over her social media posts, threatened to hold up a city budget to force a critic off of a quasi-governmental body, and praised his office staff for stealing and destroying all of a homeless person’s belongings to clear a viaduct in January.

The Clerk continues:

Mr. Czosnyka, as the interested party seeking disclosure, sole intent in obtaining information is for his own personal gains to leverage his social media blog and continue elevating his Chicago Tribune article. His request to obtain the residents’ names has no real bearing on city government and more with invading a private citizens right to privacy (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-foia-illinois-public-records-20210402-tijpivv5cnhmpf3urocqtrwxne-story.html). There is no real interest in the public obtaining such disclosure.

The Clerk incorrectly argues that there is no “real interest in the public obtaining” this information and asserts that this is somehow for Czosnyka’s own personal gain, citing a social media blog which, to our knowledge, does not exist. In another heavy dose of irony, the Clerk uses the fact that Czosnyka was an interview subject for a Chicago Tribune article about his experiences and challenges with FOIA as a reason to question his motives and to withhold information under FOIA.

Asked to comment on this experience with the Clerk’s office, Czosnyka wrote, “I was struck by the unprofessional tone of the Clerk’s lawyer, Michelle Levar’s (yes, that Levar family) boss at the Clerk’s Office. Then, I recalled what was clear from the start, the Clerk’s Office was covering for Gardiner and they had no legal leg to stand on. Names are not ‘private information’.”

City clerk Anna Valencia has recently announced her intention to run for the Illinois Secretary of State office.

It’s unclear why her office appears to be so willing to provide aircover for Gardiner. The day of Gardiner’s interview with CBS, Valencia’s staff issued a letter claiming they completed an “unofficial survey” of the block and determined that exempting everyone within a 300-address radius would create parking problems on the street. Gardiner showed this letter to Koslov, claiming this in some way justified his actions; however, such a broad exception was never requested. A subsequent FOIA revealed Valencia’s office has no record at all from the alleged “survey” and has no records of any other such “unofficial survey” ever taking place.

The Clerk could easily put this issue to rest and answer the uncertainty around Gardiner’s most recent claims. As the U.S. Supreme Court said, FOIA is “needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed…[and] explained as a means for citizens to know ‘what their Government is up to.’”

Czosnyka and the residents of the 45th ward deserve to know what their government is up to.

Chicago Northwest Side News. Watchdog. Holding public officials and candidates accountable.