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Who pays for illegal government secrecy? You do.

Friday, December 01, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios answers questions during an interview for a taping of "First Tuesdays" with Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader and Mick Dumke of the Chicago Sun-Times at The Hideout Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Editorial Board

12:05 pm, December 1, 2017

In one case, Chicago’s City Hall withheld records in a wrongful death lawsuit sparked by alleged police misconduct. A federal judge ruled that the city acted in “bad faith.” The penalty, borne by taxpayers: $62,500.

That’s a lot of money, especially since it’s the eighth time that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has been sanctioned for failing to turn over potential evidence in a police misconduct case. Eight cases, eight payouts of taxpayer money, with the latest being the largest pretrial sanction it has paid in a police misconduct case.

For the College of DuPage, the payout was even higher. In mid-November, a judge ordered the college and its foundation to reimburse the Tribune about $225,000 in legal costs because officials lost a bid to keep a public document secret from ... the public. The college and foundation had already spent some $280,000 on their own legal fees to defend the indefensible.

And the next case of a public official squandering taxpayer money in a futile attempt to keep public documents from the people who own them? One likely candidate is Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

In December 2016, a judge ordered Berrios to release factual data used in property assessments. The assessor’s office had denied a Freedom of Information Act request, arguing that the data revealed too much about how its process works. Get that? The public can’t see what goes into how property valuations for tax purposes are calculated by a public agency funded by taxpayers.

In the ruling, Cook County Circuit Judge Neil H. Cohen said: "I think it leads to an absurd result if anyone were to accept (Berrios’) argument. I think it's actually a violation of trust that the public officials are given by the people." Cohen awarded the Tribune about $32,000 to cover legal fees.

Did Berrios take the hint? No. He appealed. More taxpayer money swirling the drain. More waste of the courts’ time as Berrios fights a battle that he likely cannot win.

We’ve seen this spend-and-stall strategy too often. Government officials hope to delay release of potentially embarrassing public information for so long that citizens lose interest or consider it ancient history. The officials hope to draw out these battles so that news organizations think twice about their mounting legal bills.

Dumb move. The information comes out because these aren’t close legal calls. The Freedom of Information Act wasn’t meant “to hide things from the citizens,” Cohen rightly said in deciding the Berrios case. “FOIA was meant to disclose and have total transparency of its elected officials who work for the people.”

That’s a scary thought to officials like Berrios, who lard the payroll with cronies and relatives. Total transparency on how the office spends — or wastes — taxpayer money? Perish the thought. You want to see the data that goes into how Berrios and his minions decide that your home or commercial or industrial property is worth more than your neighbor’s? Tough. See you in court.

We’re sure Berrios is hoping to spend-and-stall this case until after the 2018 election. But we hope voters see through this smokescreen. As we said last summer: “The system he runs is so opaque that it can easily be gamed, mismanaged and abused by politicians and their cronies.’’ That’s the opposite of what taxpayers/voters should want: a system that is transparent, accurate and above all, fair to all.

By now one thing should be clear to Berrios, City Hall operatives and other pols intent on keeping citizens in the dark: It won’t work. Because this information doesn’t belong to public officials or bureaucrats. It belongs to the public. It’s bad enough that governments try to withhold that information. It’s worse that they waste the public’s money trying to do so.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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