By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO
The following commentary was published this weekend in the Chicago Sun-Times. >> Click here to read Chris Kennedy’s letter to me about police bodyguard details for politicians.
Christopher Kennedy, president of the Merchandise Mart and U. of I. board chairman, is one of Chicago’s most prominent business and civic leaders. He also grew up with the unimaginable scars of two horrific family tragedies: The assassinations of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, and his father, Robert, during the 1968 Presidential campaign. Few people have a closer connection to the existential dangers of public service in the emotional and sometimes irrational world of politics and public service. So when Chris wrote me recently to weigh in on the controversy over the police bodyguard detail that’s been protecting Chicago alderman and Finance Committee chairman Ed Burke for several decades, I paid close attention.
“Now is the wrong time to decrease protection for public servants,” Kennedy wrote. “It is a time of budget cuts, layoffs, vendor consolidation and cuts to all services, all of which are enormously disruptive to people’s lives. These victims of the recession in general and government cuts in particular sometimes mischannel the anger caused by such disruption. At these times an elected official like Alderman Burke—who has long tenure, a committee chairmanship and a high-profile—is a potential focus for misplaced anger, hatred and revenge.”
The letter arrived a few days before a news report that one of Burke’s southwest side constituents had been arrested for leaving a threatening phone message at Burke’s ward office.
Let me put this in context: The Better Government Association filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department earlier this year because CPD refused to provide us with financial and manpower details of Burke’s security detail. We’re not advocating for or against his police protection, and we’re not trying to jeopardize his safety, but we do believe the public has a right to know how many officers are assigned to the detail, and how much it costs taxpayers. We don’t need a day-by-day security breakdown—how many cops in how many cars—but we do believe that annualized statistics will give the public a sense of how police are being deployed and tax dollars spent at a time when both are in short supply.
CPD has refused to provide the information, despite repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, claiming it’s a private security matter, but we respectfully disagree. Annualized data won’t endanger Burke, but it will make it easier to decide if one of Chicago’s 50 aldermen deserves a 24-7 bodyguard detail wherever he goes.
Chris Kennedy seems to agree with the transparency argument, writing that “the FOIA process has provided a pretty good vehicle for increasing the amount of disclosure and transparency and as such is a good tool for the BGA.” He adds that “pursuing information is a worthy goal” before adding his personal view of the Burke situation.
Burke’s security detail has been a hot-button issue for years—the late mayor Harold Washington tried to scale it back in the 1980’s, when he and Burke were engaged in the pitched political battle known as “Council Wars.” Burke won the security showdown in 1986 when a Cook County judge blocked Washington’s cutback effort, and Mayor Daley, who has his own bodyguard detail, has never challenged Burke on the security issue. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said publicly the Burke detail is probably unsupportable at a time when taxpayers and city workers are being asked to sacrifice, but Emanuel hasn’t said anything about downsizing his own security or reviewing the police protection the city clerk and treasurer receive.
As for the man who threatened Burke, he apologized, blaming the phone call on his medical problems, which include AIDS, depression and the abuse of both alcohol and prescription drugs. “I’ve never been in trouble with the law,” Timothy Hercog said. “I’m not a violent person. I’ve never hurt anyone.”
In his letter to me, Chris Kennedy says “one of the great byproducts of a strong BGA is the potential to lure high-quality candidates back into government service. Somehow we need to strike the right balance between cost-cutting and personal safety.”
We couldn’t agree more. We’re simply arguing for transparency—our right to know the basics so the right decisions can be made. As revered Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1913, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” That’s still true nearly a century later, as we celebrate “Sunshine Week,” which recognizes the first step in assessing the performance of government is transparency. You can’t assess what you can’t see.
Chris Kennedy makes a strong case for protecting some elected officials. So in the spirit of Brandeis, transparency and “Sunshine Week,” CPD should release relevant information about the present so we can make an informed decision about the future.