A group opposed to the current plans to build the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park have asked a court to order the city and park district to make public communications among the various players in the project.
In a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed Jan. 16 in Cook County Circuit Court, The Coalition to Save Jackson Park wants a Cook County judge to force the Chicago Park District and the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to release “records related to specific aspects of the planning, development and impact of the Obama Presidential Center proposed for construction in Jackson Park.”
The library and museum is planned to occupy 20 acres in Jackson Park on the city’s South Side when it opens in 2021. The University of Chicago is the hosting agency for the center, which is under the umbrella of the Barack Obama Foundation and would not be part of the federal presidential library network of the National Archives and Records Administration.
According to a statement on its website, the Coalition says it believes the Obama Center should not be located in Jackson Park, but instead should be built in more impoverished neighborhoods elsewhere on the South Side.
The Coalition said it filed a FOIA request for the communications on Nov. 3 and did not get a response until Jan. 11, nearly two months after the deadline. The Park District, the complaint said, “produced a limited, incomplete and inadequate set of records … that did not include electronic communications.”
According to the Coalition, the Obama Center “is an ongoing source of considerable public discussion and debate among parties concerned about the lack of budgetary planning, impact of proposed road closures, lack of a community benefits agreement, lack of potential for economic development as the site is currently designed and impact on the environment and character of historic Jackson Park.”
The Coalition requested any and all records related to the decision to offer public park space for the Center, plans to close Marquette and Cornell Drives, proposals for a parking garage on the Midway Plaisance, as well as concerning changes to Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island and impacts on flooding, runoff, bird migration and nesting and microclimate.
According to the complaint, the Park District responded to the request on the day it was submitted with an automated message that read, “Thank you for your FOIA request.” Ten days later, on Nov. 13, the Park District emailed notice of a five-business-day extension, saying the records needed to be examined for possible exemption from disclosure, as well as citing a need for a consultation for another public body.
Daniel Massoglia, one of the attorneys representing the coalition, along with Canon Law Group, P.C., said he spoke with a Park District employee Nov. 21, who told the Coalition the documents were all ready, pending a letter from Commissioner Michael Kelly. The employee did not, per the complaint, say anything about records that might be excluded, nor did she direct the coalition to narrow the scope of its request.
The Coalition continued to contact the Park District over the next several weeks until some records finally were made available Jan. 11 via a Dropbox link — a “long-overdue, email-free, seven-document production” that did not address several of the requested topics, although the Coalition asserted it believes Park District employees discussed the topics over email.
The Coalition said the Park District staffer called Jan. 12 and said her information technology department had said the request should be narrowed, but admitted she failed to pass that information to the Coalition.
The mayor’s office is listed as a respondent in discovery, not a defendant. However, the Coalition cited a Nov. 7 email from Mayoral FOIA Officer Shannon Leonard that it says shows she was involved in the process of deciding the degree to which the Park District would comply with the Coalition’s request. It also cited the same office’s coordination with regard to a FOIA request for a proposed Jackson Park golf course.
In addition to forcing release of the documents, the Coalition said it is entitled to recover legal fees for its effort in the proceedings, as well as statutory damages of between $2,500 and $5,000 per violation of the FOIA law.