Brandon Johnson speaking into a microphone
Brandon Johnson speaks during a March 2023 campaign event. Johnson ran on a progressive platform that centered the needs and experiences of Chicago's communities. Credit: Paul Goyette for the Chicago Reader

Something seems shady at City Hall.

It’s not the first time a Chicago politician is operating in the dark. But the actions of Mayor Brandon Johnson are conspicuous for the progressive union organizer who ascended to office on bold promises of cogovernance with the pantheon of Chicago’s political left who coalesced around him. 

Since taking office, Johnson moved largely outside public view to erect a now-scrapped tent encampment for newly arriving migrants on contaminated land, he and his Rules Committee chair walled off parts of council chambers—and entire floors of City Hall—from the public, and he has often evaded key questions on the future of surveillance technology he unabashedly rebuked on the campaign trail.

The mayor’s opacity on such pressing issues is eerily familiar to a city still reeling from his predecessor’s disregarded promises to “bring in the light.”

Mayoral spokesperson Ronnie Reese said in a written statement that the Johnson administration is “committed to ethical and effective governance, of which transparency is a crucial component.” In each of these instances, he pointed to briefings with alderpeople, community meetings, and work with “internal and external partners” that balance “the need for timely, clear and effective communication with respect for the sensitive nature of the topics and the desire to prioritize those most impacted.” Reese said reports and frequently asked questions are posted to the city’s website.

In early September, the city leveraged an existing state contract to quietly ink a $29 million deal with GardaWorld Federal Services and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services. A week earlier, Johnson had first floated his plan to move asylum seekers and other migrants sleeping at police stations into what he termed “winterized base camps.” According to the contract, GardaWorld was to provide “temporary housing, on an as-needed basis” in the form of yurt-style tent encampments. Johnson offered few details about how the plan would work (particularly given Chicago’s proclivity for gelid winter weather), possible locations for the encampments, or even a timeline for when the so-called “base camps” would be set up. (Reese said all contract details are released to the public “when final and with the appropriate confirmation from City agencies.”)

It’s not surprising Johnson would want to keep the plan under wraps. GardaWorld reportedly operated a detention camp for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children at the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso, Texas. A BBC investigation of the camp found allegations of sexual abuse, outbreaks of COVID-19 and lice, a lack of clean clothes, and children served undercooked meat. The federal government, in an internal report released last year, found children confined at the base experienced anxiety and panic attacks, and whistleblowers faced retaliation for speaking out. Aegis Defense Services, meanwhile, allegedly enlisted former child soldiers in Sierra Leone as mercenaries to protect U.S. military bases in Iraq, the Guardian reported.

The mayor of Denver in July scrapped a planned $40 million deal with GardaWorld following intense backlash from advocates alarmed by the company’s history of alleged abuses and its lack of experience in providing shelter for migrants. 

Johnson, however, pressed on. 

By mid-October, the administration began constructing a planned tent encampment in Brighton Park, CBS 2 reported, catching both the public and even some within city government off-guard. The nine and one half–acre lot, zoned for heavy manufacturing, had previously housed a rail yard, a zinc smelter, and a parking lot for truck trailers. 

In the weeks that followed, advocates repeatedly expressed concern that the property’s long history as an industrial site meant the soil was likely contaminated. Construction, in the meantime, plugged ahead. The mayor rebuffed questions about why the city was moving forward with construction without first completing an environmental assessment—but he vowed to release the study in full when it was completed. Late last week, however, the mayor’s office instead instructed reporters to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy. (The city provided the study to the Reader late Friday evening and posted it to a city website on Sunday.)

The report confirmed what advocates had said for weeks: the soil contained hazardous contaminants, including mercury, lead, and arsenic. Governor J.B. Pritzker would ultimately pull the plug on the plan, citing “serious environmental concerns,” inadequate soil sampling, and remediation efforts that don’t “meet state cleanup standards for residential use.”

At a late November press conference, a reporter asked Johnson about how the tent encampment process unfolded. He was steadfast in his reply: “This notion that, somehow, there’s been a lack of information or transparency, I call false on that. I have told the truth, and I’ve always told the truth, and I will always tell the truth.”

The first six months of Johnson’s term proved tumultuous for the City Council. Debate on issues like funding for migrant care and a pair of resolutions—one expressing solidarity with Israel as it bombed civilians in Gaza, another asking voters whether to repeal Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance—devolved into chaos. Members of the public packed the chamber and the lobby a floor below, levying racist attacks, cajoling alderpeople, and sparring with one another. Johnson, who, as mayor, presides over the council, often appeared reluctant to remove people from the chamber. In several instances, after imploring protesters to be respectful, he and his committee chairs recessed or adjourned meetings early. At one October hearing, after repeated interruptions, he admonished disrupters with a “final warning” before finally ordering police to clear the entire second-floor gallery.

The city has since responded with a heavy hand. In late November, as WBEZ first reported, the council’s sergeant at arms and Rules Committee unveiled new regulations that severely limit public participation. The protocols, which the Rules Committee says will remain in effect indefinitely but have yet to be published, limit the public to the third-floor gallery, encased in glass, above the chamber. The open second floor, filled with rows of seats behind the council, is available only to people invited by a public official or who otherwise receive special permission. The second-floor gallery was previously open to speakers for public comment with seating available on a first-come-first-served basis. (The mayor’s office has said the arrangements are necessary to protect the personal safety of alderpeople and are a work in progress.)

In response, the Better Government Association (BGA), a nonprofit watchdog, sent a letter to Johnson warning that such restrictions aren’t just bad policy, they might also be illegal. The BGA identified four areas it believes run afoul of the Illinois Open Meetings Act: the new protocols create “preferential treatment among different classes of attendees,” render council chambers inconvenient to the public, and infringe on the public’s right to record and to address the council. 

David Greising, the letter’s author and president and CEO of the BGA, cautioned that a judge could declare “null and void” any final votes taken during a violation of the Open Meetings Act. “Defending these rules would seem an unwise use of public resources. And, most importantly, continuing to apply these rules would deny the public’s rightful access to meetings of [the] City Council,” Greising wrote.

That’s one part of a broader move to restrict public access to City Hall. Elevators to aldermanic and mayoral offices are roped off and guarded by law enforcement, and stairs and elevators to council chambers are inaccessible until shortly before public meetings begin.

Reese, the mayor’s spokesperson, said, “From day one, our administration has centered collaboration and transparency, and that will continue with the understanding that we are accountable first and foremost to the people who elected us to office and whom we serve every day.”

“Brandon Johnson will end the ShotSpotter contract,” reads the public safety platform on his campaign website. “Chicago spends $9 million a year on ShotSpotter despite clear evidence it is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error. This expensive technology played a pivotal role in the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. That cannot happen again.”

As a candidate, Johnson was unequivocal: if elected, he would scrap the multimillion dollar gunshot detection technology that the city’s Office of Inspector General found “rarely produce[s] evidence of a gun-related crime.” But, now seven months into his first term, his actions speak louder than his words. 

In the lead-up to his inauguration, Johnson and his allies appeared to slowly walk back his comments. They wouldn’t publicly commit to canceling the contract and suggested the emphatic promise was instead still up for discussion in interviews with outlets including Block Club Chicago and the Chicago Sun-Times. Speaking with the Reader about his first hundred days in office, he again would not commit to ending the deal with ShotSpotter.

The city in June approved a $10 million payment to extend the deal with SoundThinking, the company that makes ShotSpotter, the Sun-Times reported. Mayoral adviser Jason Lee at the time chalked it up to an accident that followed former mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to extend the contract through February 2024. But, as South Side Weekly reported, during an earnings call last month, SoundThinking CEO Ralph Clark told investors Johnson “included funding for the continued use of acoustic gunshot detection technology” in his 2024 budget proposal, which the City Council approved a week later. The budget includes a roughly $9 million line item for “Software Maintenance and Licensing.” That same expense also appeared in the 2023 budget.

Shortly before his election, Johnson responded to a BGA candidate questionnaire on government transparency and ethics. “Open access to information and open government are essential to our democracy.” He added, “As we have seen in Chicago, with more than 100 lawsuits filed against the Lightfoot administration, the pursuit of information becomes more of a story than the information itself.”

It seems, at least throughout the first few months of his term, that’s also been the case for Johnson.