BGA Sues Emanuel’s Staff Over School Lead Disclosures

The mayor’s office and public health officials refused to fully comply with an open-records request, newly filed suit claims. Officials withheld information related to lead contamination in Chicago schools.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

The Better Government Association has sued the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, seeking records related to lead testing of drinking water at the Chicago Public Schools and city efforts in 2016 to manage media coverage of it.

The watchdog group filed the lawsuit in Cook County circuit court after the city redacted or withheld several records following a June 2016 open records request submitted as lead tests were underway in city schools. Those tests ultimately would find high drinking water lead levels at more than 100 facilities

Emanuel’s health department assisted in the school lead testing program, and the BGA’s records request filed under the Freedom of Information Act sought emails swapped between Health Commissioner Julie Morita, the mayor and top mayoral staffers. 

Chicago Public Schools logo

“The public interest in records that would reveal whether the government is being honest and complete in its communications with the public is substantial and reflects the primary reason for freedom of information in the first place,” the lawsuit declares.

CPS began testing water faucets and other fixtures for lead in schools last year. The tests followed a Chicago Tribune inquiry into recent analyses of school drinking water. School officials told the Tribune water fixtures hadn’t been tested since 2012, according to the newspaper’s report.

Lead consumption is extremely harmful to children as exposure can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral problems and other serious health issues.

Years ago, lead was frequently used in underground pipes and fittings, and reducing or eliminating contamination today can prove quite expensive--as has been shown in Flint, Michigan where the town’s water system became saturated with lead after an ill-fated cost-cutting move.

In its lawsuit, the BGA acknowledges Emanuel’s office did produce some records in response to its open records request. However, many were heavily redacted and others withheld in their entirety, with lawyers for the city claiming an exemption under FOIA law for so-called deliberative process communications in which officials express opinions about policies still in formation.

The city’s exemption claims are a stretch, the lawsuit argues, with deliberative process invoked to redact or withhold emails pertaining to discussions of letters eventually sent to parents about the lead testing as well as discussions about what Morita and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool should publicly say about the lead problem.

The lawsuit also challenges the sufficiency of the city’s search for emails that pertain to the lead testing. In particular, it alleges the city did not appear to have conducted a search for pertinent personal emails involving Emanuel and others that may have been used to discuss government business.

In settling a separate case brought by the BGA, the city acknowledged in December that Emanuel had used his personal email addresses to conduct public business. At the time, the city released more than 3,000 pages of such communications involving the mayor.

Previous Coverage

2016 | Illinois Schools Pushed To Test Water For High Lead Levels