South side community group files FOIA lawsuit against Park District over Obama Center records

Staff Writer

A south side community group, on Tuesday, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Chicago Park District to compel the Park District to produce withheld records regarding the Obama Presidential Center that is proposed for Jackson Park.

The community group, the Coalition to Save Jackson Park, filed the suit in the Cook County Circuit Court and argue that the Park District “has willfully and intentionally violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act,” according to a written release.

The group is also seeking information about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s involvement in the FOIA violation.

“Documents previously obtained by CTSJP [Coalition to Save Jackson Park] show that the Mayor’s Office is coordinating city department responses to FOIA requests related to the Obama Center,” according to a written release.

Last November, the group made a FOIA request seeking emails and other documents from the Chicago Park District concerning the Obama Center.

The coalition is requesting information on the decision to offer public parkland for use in the construction of the Obama Presidential Center; plans to close portions of Marquette and Cornell Drives; plans to build the Obama Center parking garage on additional parkland near Midway Plaisance and changes to Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, as a result of the construction of the Obama Center.

As well as, “potential flooding and run-off, avian-migration and nesting issues, and impact on local microclimate and temperatures in Jackson Park related to the Obama Presidential Center and its construction,” according to the complaint.

The Coalition To Save Jackson Park is a community group based on the south side and is led by Janet Geovanis, a Chicago resident. Gabriel Piemonte, a Woodlawn resident and former editor of the Hyde Park Herald, is also a member of the coalition.

The process is “shrouded in secrecy,” Geovanis said in a written statement. “The city’s refusal to provide basic information—including health information for a possibly toxic construction site near schools and apartments—and the Obama Foundation’s secret changes, call into question locating the Center in Jackson Park.”

Since the group’s FOIA request in November, they claim that the Chicago Park District has released only a portion of the information that they’ve requested, “denying the public the opportunity for transparency where it is sorely needed,” states Daniel Massoglia, an attorney for the group, in a written statement.

Massoglia said, “This is a pressing public issue and city government is letting the people down.”

The coalition is requesting that the court enter a judgment that orders the Park District to produce “all requested material; awards reasonable attorney fees; awards statutory damages of between $2,500 and $5,000 for each willful and intentional violation of FOIA; and awards CTSJP any other relief the Court should deem just,” according to the complaint.

“The FOIA in question was a lengthy request and required extensive time and consultation,” saidJessica Maxey-Faulkner, Director of Communications Chicago Park District. “The Chicago Park District provided responsive documents, but asked that the request for emails be narrowed because the original request was unduly burdensome as written. The Chicago Park District attempted to work with the requester to help narrow the email search, but unfortunately the requester chose to file a lawsuit instead.”

Piemonte said in a written statement, “The press and the public have a right to know what decisions are being made behind closed doors.”

The announcement of the suit comes on the heels of the submission of plans to the Chicago Plan Commission by the Barack Obama Foundation, Park District, and the Chicago Department of Transportation that are necessary to green light the formation of the Obama Center in Jackson Park.

All three entities’ submissions to the city are consistent with what was shared with the public including a few minor changes.

The Obama Foundation has added underground on-site parking for the Obama Center and has adjusted the design of the buildings that make up the campus. The Chicago Park District introduced a relocated track and field to replace what will be lost due to the construction of the Obama Center.

Lastly, the Chicago Department of Transportation introduced known roadway changes to accompany the design for the Obama Center with the suggestion of two additional pedestrian underpasses.

The Obama Center will be introduced to City Council on Wednesday, Jan. 17.

Groundbreaking for the Obama Center is expected to begin in late 2018. The Obama Center will open its doors in 2021.