Despite transparency pledge, Kaegi’s office failed to fulfill a quarter of FOIAs in recent years – Crain’s Chicago Business

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Crain’s filed its own FOIA seeking a list of public records requests the office received going back to 2014, in order to compare Kaegi’s record with his predecessor, Joseph Berrios. It took six weeks for Kaegi’s office to respond, well beyond the legally required five days.

Chief Deputy Assessor Sarah Garza Resnick says she has “no faith” that data available from before the 2020 revamp is accurate. Those records show that Berrios fulfilled nearly all of the 177,000 requests reflected in the log in his last term from 2014 through 2018. But that data lacks information on whether requests were closed because they were denied or partially fulfilled, as well as dates for when requests were considered complete. Those records also appear to omit media requests entirely, including a period when Berrios was publicly fighting the release of assessment data as part of the blockbuster “Tax Divide” series that helped oust him from office. Kaegi’s team also found nearly 19,000 FOIA-related emails sent to the previous FOIA manager that could contain thousands more requests that “were not included in any official log that we have been able to find,” spokesman Scott Smith says.

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Kaegi’s 2018 campaign centered on boosting transparency, including cutting down a backlog of FOIA requests from the Berrios era. Now his Democratic opponent in the June 28 primary, Kari Steele, is seizing on the issue. In a release sent last month, Steele’s camp said they had been waiting several weeks for replies. Among their requests: Information about properties that applied for tax breaks. “Why can’t that be easily shared since he says he’s audited them following recent scandals?”

Top assessor staff say they’ve prioritized releasing reams of data to make FOIA requests unnecessary, including regularly publishing their visitors log; models for assessing residential properties; valuation reports for various townships and new dashboards on assessment changes, certification reports and COVID adjustments.

“Transparency should not be measured solely by FOIA, but by what an office is willing to release publicly. At that, we’ve wildly excelled and will continue to excel at. We’re the only assessor’s office in the country to put this data out there as to how every single assessment is calculated,” Smith told Crain’s.

And they’ve improved on fulfilling FOIAs in recent months, they say. In the third quarter of 2021, the office said requests took an average of 80 days to fulfill. In the current quarter, it’s down to three days.

But attorney Michael Elliott, who represents commercial taxpayers, condo associations and homeowners, says neither Berrios nor Kaegi can claim a stellar record when it comes to records requests. Elliot’s firm, Elliott & Associates, has 45 open requests with Kaegi’s office, according to the data released.

Notes or details about why assessor staff reach certain valuations are helpful in the appeals process but are especially hard to come by, Elliott says. “If you want to FOIA the evidence that was submitted in a tax appeal case, maybe you’re trying to compare to another property, you never get that. If you want to FOIA the notes or documentation the assessor has that explains how or why they made the decision they did, you either don’t ever get it or wait a very long time to get it.”

Kaegi’s office recently made some commercial property details available for buildings in the city of Chicago.

Attorney Gary H. Smith, a real estate lawyer who also leads the Illinois Property Tax Lawyers Association, says he’s similarly disappointed Kaegi had fallen short on transparency promises. He says he’s heard similar complaints from colleagues in the appeals business. Both he and Elliott had hoped Kaegi’s office would respond as quickly to requests as the county’s Board of Review. Smith says he can receive “just in time” notes from BOR analysts that help him in the appeals process.

Smith says the office is getting closer to that goal. It recently rolled out the new Property Details Search, which lets property tax practitioners easily look up information they commonly had to file a FOIA for in the past.

But Smith and Garza Resnick acknowledge the office’s shortcomings, partly blaming the paper-based system that Berrios left behind. Requests for older documents are difficult to fulfill, they say, sometimes because they are misplaced within the county building or off-site at a warehouse on the city’s Southwest Side. The office is seeking funding to digitize those records.

COVID made the challenge more difficult: Staff were rotating in and out of the office and had to learn how the assessor’s new integrated property tax system—known as iasWorld—worked. The assessor’s longtime head of FOIA also resisted a transition to the revamped request system known as GovQA, where the public could file and track various requests online, Garza Resnick said. He was let go six months after being put on a performance improvement plan.

A new interim manager is in the process of reaching out to members of the public whose responses have been delayed for months. Smith suggests anyone who has not heard back about a FOIA file a fresh request to get an answer back more promptly.

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June 17, 2022 at 03:48PM

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