Park District Sued Over Request for Obama Center Information

The Coalition to Save Jackson Park claims their request for information about the Obama Center’s use of public parkland was neglected.

By Emma Dyer, Co-Editor-in-Chief ('20-'21)

The Coalition to Save Jackson Park has filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Park District for violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Coalition is an organization that aims to address South Side community members’ concerns about the Obama Presidential Center before plans are finalized. The organization filed the suit after the Chicago Park District did not respond within the time frame guaranteed by FOIA and failed to provide all the FOIA-protected information that the Coalition requested.

In their FOIA request, the Coalition requested information from the Chicago Park District and the Obama Foundation’s communications that led to the agreement to allow public parkland as the construction site of the Presidential Center. They also requested information pertaining to road closures and proposed infrastructure changes, parking garage proposals, and any considerations for potential flooding and the Center’s impact on Jackson Park’s natural ecosystem.

The initial FOIA request from the Coalition, filed on November 3, 2017, did not elicit a response from Chicago Park District until January 11, 2018. The prolonged response period resulted in missing statutory deadlines. During this period, CPaD failed to adequately respond to CTSJP’s attempted telephone and email communication, according to the complaint. The documents released by the Chicago Park District contained no electronic communication, particularly e-mails, the main source of information the Coalition hoped to receive from their request. As defined in the Freedom of Information Act, “public records” includes electronic communications.

The suit also lists the Office of the Mayor of Chicago as a “respondent in discovery,” due to the likelihood that communications containing information requested by the Coalition could include communication between the two departments.

“The plaintiff has named the Mayor’s Office as a ‘respondent in discovery,’ which is a mechanism for requesting information from the entity. The plaintiff has not alleged that the Mayor’s Office inadequately responded to its FOIA request,” said Bill McCaffrey, spokesperson for the Department of Law for the City of Chicago.

While the Mayor’s Office is not defending itself against any charges, the Coalition’s complaint cites a November 7 e-mail from Mayoral FOIA Officer Shannon Leonard, which they believe demonstrates that the Mayor’s Office had discretion over the information the Chicago Park District chose to release. “Given the contents of this message, it is likely that any [Chicago Park District] decision to produce documents, or not, and which documents—and thus comply with FOIA, or not—was made with the knowledge, approval, and at the direction of the Respondent in Discovery Office of the Mayor of Chicago,” the Coalition’s complaint states.

The Mayor’s Office does not deny reviewing the documents included in the FOIA request before they were released to the Coalition. In response to Coalition’s idea that the Mayor’s Office discretion may have been part of the failure to respond to the FOIA request, McCaffrey said, “In cases in which multiple departments have the same records, one FOIA officer may appropriately respond with records on behalf of all the departments.”

Since the lawsuit was filed the lawsuit on January 16, the Chicago Park District and other departments, including Chicago Public Schools and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), have been working with the Coalition to fulfill the FOIA request. DPD has released almost 500 pages of e-mails, but according to Coalition Co-Founder Gabriel Piemonte the documents predominantly contain links to press releases and lack information regarding the Presidential Center decision making process.

The Chicago Park District has responded to the lawsuit but have yet to release new documents. “They have been engaged. They are expressing a willingness to comply. They have asked for more time,” Piemonte said about the Chicago Park District. “There’s movement—it’s procedural. What we don’t have is the information we requested in FOIA from the Parks District yet.”

With the Presidential Center’s plans pending final approval this spring, the efficacy of community member efforts to change current plans remains unclear. The Coalition has several tangible criticisms of the current plans, as outlined in their editorial in the Hyde Park Herald, but Piemonte described their mission as based on democratic principle. “There is an imbalance of power. We hope getting this information out there will demonstrate the value of a transparent process,” Piemonte said.

The Obama Foundation continues to steadfastly affirm its engagement with the South Side community in the Center’s design process. “The Obama Foundation is regularly meeting with members of the community,” a spokesperson for the Obama Foundation said. “We will continue to incorporate community feedback into the [Obama Presidential Center] as we look to create a destination that will revitalize Jackson Park, provide new educational, cultural and recreational opportunities for neighborhood families, and drive economic opportunity on the South Side and throughout Chicago.”

Even with the Obama Foundation’s significant changes to the Center plans in response to community input—including relocating the main parking facility off the Midway and to an underground location in Jackson Park—many community members still feel disconnected from the Center’s plans. Piemonte attributes this to the Center’s status as a private project rather than a federally funded presidential library. “There is a real civic pride that comes with the people being part of a civic transformation. We do it because we have a hand in it; but instead, public land is being given up and we don’t really have any say,” Piemonte said.