Cook County Assessor Kaegi falling behind on vow to answer FOIAs

Kaegi’s administration blames paper records of predecessor

Fritz Kaegi (Twitter via fritz4assessor, iStock)
Fritz Kaegi (Twitter via fritz4assessor, iStock)

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi hasn’t followed through on a vow to comply with all outstanding Freedom of Information Act requests.

Despite his campaign promise to make his office more transparent, Kaegi’s administration has failed to fulfill 26 percent of the requests — about 2,800 — to release internal records it received between early 2020 and May 2022, Crain’s reported.

Crain’s, which filed its own FOIA request for a list of all of the public records requests Kaegi’s office had received since 2014, had to wait six weeks for that information, far longer than the five-day turnaround the law requires. According to the data, it takes an average of 53 days for Kaegi’s office to complete a FOIA request.

Kaegi’s 2018 campaign focused on boosting transparency after his predecessor Joseph Berrios was ousted from office due, in part, to his resistance to release assessment data. According to Chief Deputy Assessor Sarah Garza Resnick, the records from before 2020 aren’t accurate, because they show Berrios fulfilled all 177,000 requests he received from 2014 to 2018 but don’t include information about whether the requests were answered or denied. In addition, the list of requests Berrios’ office said were fulfilled didn’t include any from the media.

Kaegi’s team also found an additional 19,000 FOIA-related emails that had been sent to Berrios’ FOIA manager that could include information requests that weren’t in any official log.

According to top assessor staff, Kaegi has prioritized releasing data in ways that make FOIA requests unnecessary, like regularly publishing visitor logs, township valuation reports and his models for assessing properties.

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“Transparency should not be measured solely by FOIA, but by what an office is willing to release publicly,” Kaegi’s spokesman Scott Smith told Crain’s. “At that, we’ve wildly excelled and will continue to excel. We’re the only assessor’s office in the country to put this data out there as to how every single assessment is calculated.”

Kaegi’s office says they have improved on fulfilling FOIA requests recently and that it now takes an average of three days to provide the information, compared with the average 80 days it took to fulfill requests in the third quarter of 2021.

Garza Resnick and Smith said they realize the office has shortcomings. They blamed part of that on the paper-based system that was left to them by the Berrios administration. Their office is looking for funding to digitize old records because many have been misplaced or are stored in an off-site warehouse.

The assessor’s longtime head of FOIA was resistant to the revamped request system where the public could file and track requests online and, according to Garza Resnick, was let go six months after being put on a performance improvement plan.

A new interim manager has been appointed and is in the process of fulfilling requests that have been delayed.

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