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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 10:33 pm

What are they hiding?

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If you want to know what percentage of city employees are white and what percentage are minority, all you have to do is call the city personnel office and talk to assistant director Lori Bluhm. She'll tell you that 87 percent of employees are white. Ask about their sex, and she'll tell you that 38 percent of city employees are female.

Of course, Bluhm works for the city of Champaign, so those statistics apply only to Champaign. You could get similar data for Peoria by speaking with equal-opportunity manager David Watkins. Or for Bloomington by talking to Angie Brown in the city's human-resources department.

Those percentages are just what they have at their fingertips. Given a bit more time, they will happily break the numbers down by specific city departments and ethnic classifications.

In Springfield, though, you can't get these figures. Not with a phone call, not even with a formal Freedom of Information Act request. Instead, you get a response from communications director Ernie Slottag.

"We can't give that out because that's personnel information," Slottag says. "Our legal department has determined that it falls under the personnel-information category."

The fact that other Illinois cities distribute this information freely doesn't sway Slottag.

"OK," he says, "but our legal advice is that we can't because that's personnel information."

Coming from Slottag, this statement sounds almost logical, which just proves how good he is at his job. Slottag, remember, is the one city employee who -- earlier this year, in the midst of a budget crisis so severe Mayor Tim Davlin was promising to lay off cops and snowplow drivers -- somehow won a $15,000 raise.

But city officials elsewhere cackle in disbelief at the notion that race-and-sex figures for municipal employees should be kept secret. "What? Why?" gasps Bloomington's director of community affairs, Barb Adkins, who adds that every municipality has to submit to the federal government an EEO4 report listing such stats every four years. "It's broken down by department, by gender, by age, by race, all of that," Adkins says, "and it's public information."

In Springfield, the Mayor's Task Force on Race Relations has been quietly requesting such statistics for more than a month. And the administration has finally agreed to reveal the Holy Grail -- er, I mean the race statistics -- to the task force when it meets tonight (5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2, Room 108, Municipal Center East).

These race-relations meetings are traditionally open to the general public and the media, although no one ever comes except task-force members and invited guests, says Sandy Robinson, the city's director of community relations.

So any interested person will be welcome tonight for the unveiling of the secret statistics?

Robinson hedges: "That information is going to be provided to the task force for their work in an advisory capacity to the mayor, and at this point in time, I'm not aware that that is being released to the public."

Will he fax me a copy?

"I am not allowed to share it with the media at this time," Robinson says. "Its only purpose is for use of the task force in their work of advising the mayor on the matters for which they've been empaneled."

Those matters are race relations. That's why the task force was created by Mayor Karen Hasara back in 1999. Its very existence is a frank admission that not everything is copacetic among the races in Lincoln's hometown. In fact, the only numbers available on the race and sex of city employees are the stats on police and firefighters, the two departments operating under a consent decree after being sued for race discrimination in 1999. More recently, a group of black officers filed another suit claiming that the Springfield Police Department was a racially hostile work environment. That case is still pending.

Task force chairman Baker Siddiquee -- who, as associate professor of economics at University of Illinois at Springfield, probably knows his way around employment statistics -- isn't ready to make a fuss about the trouble his group has had getting access to these numbers. "I'm really trying to understand their thinking here," he says. "Once we look at the data, we'll make our own assessment and issue a statement. I don't want to blame anybody at this point. There's going to be further discussion I'm sure."

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