When officials at public agencies say they want to be accountable and transparent, what does that really mean?
It's a persistent question in a big, political city like Chicago, and it hit us with force yesterday as we followed up on a man who died last month in public housing.
On July 28, the Sun-Times reported that Clarence Walker, 61, fell down an elevator shaft and died at the Cabrini-Green building where he lived on the Near North Side. Two days later, his family filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority, alleging that authorities failed to test and inspect the elevators as required by a national safety code.
We don't know what happened. According to the report, police stopped residents from entering and leaving the building before they pronounced him dead.
So I checked a Trib database of elevator inspections in the city and found that lifts at two addresses on the 360 block of West Oak Avenue, where Walker died, had not been inspected since 2003 and 2005. Experts say there are about 550 elevators for every inspector in the city, a ratio that makes it difficult for officials to keep up with inspection targets.
I called the spokesman at the CHA to ask about the Walker case. The spokesman, Matt Aguilar, told me he couldn't comment on ongoing litigation. So I asked him if he or someone else at the authority could talk more generally about elevator inspections and maintenance in public housing.
The answer was no.
As a reporter, I don't rely on spokespeople to fill in all of the blanks in my investigations. But I do like to give public agencies a fair chance to respond to allegations, and spokespeople are often the starting point.
When they don't respond, I try to understand why. Sometimes, as in the case of a lawsuit, anything they say could be held against them.
But when Aguilar said the authority wouldn't comment on elevator issues at all, I had a harder time understanding.
So, in as professional a manner as I could, I told him that "the absence of any response to questions about elevator maintenance would be conspicuous and raise reasonable questions about accountability and transparency."
He called me back, but to no avail. He said he could not make further comment, not even to explain why he could not make further comment.
This brings me back to the reason we decided to publish this blog post.
We don't set out to make public agencies look bad or to smear spokespeople. But, as I told Matt, we do expect accountability and transparency from public agencies. It's our job to ask tough questions on behalf of the people.
A man died last month in an elevator shaft on a property maintained with taxpayer dollars.
If a public agency won't comment on a lawsuit, perhaps we can understand. But when it won't even explain how it inspects and maintains elevators, we — and you — deserve to know why.