March 22, 2017; Chicago Tribune
How much information about public institutions should be public? When we learn about illegal or unethical behavior, we seem to agree that public business should always be conducted in an open manner. Yet, we continue to debate where the limits of public access should be and whether nonprofit organizations should be held to the same standards as governmental bodies. Recent events in Chicago and North Dakota may help further this discussion.
Chicago is known for its rough-and-tumble, machine-driven politics. So, it’s not very surprising to find another recent case where the importance of open records laws is very clear. For months, Chicago’s Better Government Association has led a push to force the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to make public emails from a personal account that concerned city business. In December, he gave up the fight and released thousands of documents with an important story about good government to tell those he serves.
The Chicago Tribune reviewed over 2,600 pages of emails and found what it believed were 26 cases where ethics rules had been violated. All were instances that involved “lobbyists, corporate executives and longtime Emanuel associates and campaign donors sought action from—or access to—the mayor or city officials without registering as a lobbyist or reporting their contact with ethics officials, as required by law.”
Because of open records laws, the public could learn about “scores of pitches to Emanuel from business owners, representatives from Airbnb advocating against home-sharing regulations, American Airlines executives pushing the mayor to back a merger, Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts seeking security around Wrigley Field and a representative for United Airlines negotiating on the expansion and modernization of O’Hare International Airport.” Chicago Alderman Ameya Payar described the problem of access in a statement he released to the Tribune:
These big corporations have direct access, and to them, it doesn’t matter if they follow the law or not, because they can pick up the phone or get a private email and get directly to the person. […] Those officials are willing to meet with the mayor on issues involving their profits, but not with aldermen or workers who want to discuss improving wages and working conditions for their contract workers.
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Whether or not the city’s Ethics Commission finds actual illegality as it investigates the mayor’s activities, clearly these are matters of public importance, and voters should be aware of them. Do we want to know who is funding nonprofit organizations in the same way we want to know who is influencing government?
As the Chicago story plays out, the North Dakota Senate is debating legislation that would exempt nonprofit organizations from open records requirements and allow them to keep donor information private. Dana Schaar Jahner, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Nonprofit Organizations, testified before the legislative committee considering the issue:
The types of nonprofits that are sometimes deemed public entities in North Dakota include arts organizations, humane societies, historical societies and domestic violence organizations. We do not believe that personal donor information, such as contact information, tax records and estate plans, should be subject to open records laws.
Senator Rich Wardner introduced the bill out of concern that some donors would withhold their funding to avoid publicity. “Nonprofits are the friend of government,” Wardner said. “It helps the nonprofits to fundraise.”
Nonprofit organizations are formed for a public purpose and benefit; they have no private owners. They are legally accountable to the states in which they are incorporated and to the federal government, but morally accountable to a wider group of stakeholders that comprise the “public” in public purpose. We recently looked at how the anonymity of donations to nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations could be corrupting the political process. Does money’s power to give access and influence in the operation of all nonprofit organizations need to be checked or balanced by openness if nonprofits are to remain accountable?—Martin Levine