Public Testimony to the Joint Committee on Finance and Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development In Support of the Proposed Sunshine Ordinance
March 16, 2009
Good morning. My name is Valerie Leonard, and I live in North Lawndale, in the 24th Ward. I live within the boundaries of the Ogden-Pulaski TIF, and I have been active with the Lawndale Alliance, a group of local residents that have come together to address issues surrounding the implementation of that TIF, as well as other issues of concern to local residents. I am here today to provide my support for the Proposed Sunshine Ordinance, and make suggestions as to how it might be strengthened.
I have had the opportunity to read the Ordinance, and I am very pleased to see provisions that will require that the TIF Redevelopment Agreements and related documentation from every TIF District in Chicago be archived on the City’s website. This is consistent with the groundwork in transparency that has already been laid by the City, particularly the City Clerk’s office.
I have seen a marked improvement in the amount of information related to City government operations and the TIFs posted on the City’s website in the past year. There are TIF annual reports for individual TIF districts, and more detailed definitions of what TIFs are and how they work.
The Sunshine Ordinance raises the bar by requiring access to documents that heretofore have required a FOIA request to obtain; standardizing the documentation that will be provided for each TIF in the City and providing a centralized location for all TIF related documents. This access will increase transparency and accountability, and provide for a more engaged electorate. While I recognize this will require a significant investment in staff time and technological resources, over the long term, it is expected that staff will spend less time responding to outside requests for information, and be freed up to spend time on other tasks that are more germane to their duties.
While the Sunshine Ordinance outlines the letter of transparency, it is important that the spirit of transparency be honored as well. It has been my experience that some of the PDF files on the City’s website, and that I have obtained through FOIA, print blank pages. Examples include the Interested Party Form, and the annual financial audits for each TIF. You cannot convert the files to Excel or Word without a password. Nor can you copy and paste sections to export into other documents. I have found myself literally copying figures by hand so I can type into other documents. If these documents are going to be available to the public, they should not print blank pages.
I appreciate the fact that the Ordinance provides that the information regarding TIFs be posted on a website. However, we should be mindful that the Digital Divide is still an issue, particularly in low-moderate income minority communities that would most likely be impacted by TIFs. There should be provisions in the Ordinance to increase transparency for those who do not have computer access. This could be achieved through written notifications, articles and public service announcements alerting us to the fact that the documents are available at our local libraries, or at City hall. It would also be helpful to hold periodic public meetings.
I realize that every community is different, but North Lawndale is impacted by 7 TIFs. On a consistent basis, the City, our elected officials and developers hold out promises of jobs, contracts and affordable housing in order to sell local residents on the TIFs. In some cases, the TIFs clearly outline goals of increasing opportunities for minority and women owned businesses and community residents.
I did a FOIA last year asking the Department of Planning to provide statistics on the businesses that received TIF assistance and the number of jobs and contracting opportunities the TIFs created for North Lawndale residents and minorities. They did provide information on the businesses that received TIF funds. They were not able to produce the information on the number of jobs produced, residents hired, or number of minority employees and contractors hired. I understand that this situation is being rectified. The Sunshine Ordinance should require the disclosure of this information on the website as well.
The Sunshine Ordinance does not provide for a funding mechanism to pay for the upfront investment in staff time and technology. There should be language included to specify the funding source. In the event that no such source exists, I recommend that the funding source come from the TIF funds. The precedent for this has already been set. For example, the administration line item for every TIF redevelopment budget includes the City’s reimbursement to itself for Department of Planning staff time spent on TIF administration.
In closing, I thank you for your time and consideration. I would be happy to provide further input or clarification of any comments that I have made if necessary.