In the spirit of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise of an “open and transparent” administration, inspection reports for Chicago’s nightclubs are posted online for anyone to view.
But NBC5 Investigates has discovered that most people would find the information anything but transparent.
Designed to provide easy access to Chicago nightclub inspection reports, the Department of Building’s website is loaded with hundreds of documents. Club-goers can type a nightclub’s address into the web page and instantly gain access to a business’s annual inspection reports, cited violations, and work permits.
“I believe the public has a right to know what venues have broken the law, what state of repair they are in, and what the city plans to do, so that someone can have an educated opinion if they want to go to that club,” says Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies, which focuses on crowd safety at concerts.
Wertheimer was an expert witness brought in by the City of Chicago to appear before an independent panel in 2003. The panel was created after 21 people were killed at the E2 nightclub on Chicago’s near south side on February 17, 2003, when panic set in after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight.
The tragedy propelled the city to increase club inspections. One of Wertheimer’s recommendations to the panel was to post the names of clubs with serious public safety violations on the city’s website, for public access.
But NBC5 Investigates found the city’s website is difficult to understand, making it hard to decipher whether cited violations were ever fixed by club owners.
City inspectors routinely assign a number and date to any annual inspection. Inspections are given a status of “passed,” “failed,” or “closed.” But any follow-up work is given a new inspection number -- making it difficult to figure out whether a violation cited in a prior year has been fixed or repaired.
For example, The Aragon Entertainment Center, on Lawrence Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood, failed a 2006 annual inspection for six building code violations. These violations were given an inspection number of 1416335. In 2007 the violations were apparently fixed, but those repairs were given a completely different inspection number, of 1492900. On top of that, the city website still lists the club’s 2006 inspection as “failed,” even though the work was completed in 2007.
In 2012 the Riviera Theatre – also in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood -- was cited as having failed its annual inspection, due to two building code violations. One violation said the theatre needed to “repair or replace [a] defective fire pump.” The other violation cited the need to “repair or replace defective gauges.” Nowhere on the city’s inspection website is there a follow-up listing, stating that the work at the Riviera was ever completed. But a request to the Chicago Fire Department -- made through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act -- reveals that there are currently no fire violations at the theatre – which would seem to contradict the information on the city’s website.
The Shrine – a venue on Chicago’s near south side -- failed an annual inspection on February 28, 2011 because the club failed to permit access to inspectors. According to the city’s website, there was no annual inspection done for all of 2011. But at the same time, the website indicates that the club passed a vent, refrigeration, and sign inspection in 2011. The city’s website also states that the Shrine passed its most recent annual inspection, in February of 2012.
The MID nightclub, at 306 North Halsted, was cited in February of 2012 for failing to permit access for an annual inspection. Five months later -- in May 2012 -- the website indicates that the nightclub passed an inspection. However, the website only indicates that the MID complied with allowing access for an inspection -- not whether the night club was actually inspected.
Susan Massel of the Department of Buildings says the city’s policies do not allow the department to go back and update the website.
Massel says open club violations are categorized into three levels: The first level includes maintenance violations, which city inspectors do not go back and check, as these are not considered dangerous. These violations may appear open on the city’s website but may in fact be closed if the club owner has fixed them.
The second level includes midgrade violations, which could be dangerous and are rechecked by inspectors. And the third level includes any violation flagged as a “life safety issue.” The city requires a club-owner to fix those third-level violations immediately, or court action will be taken.
“I feel that the website provides information that reflects the most updated permits and inspections at a site,” says Massel.
She says the city has a total of five inspectors and one supervisor monitoring the city’s 3,000 nightclubs and entertainment venues that serve alcohol -- officially referred to as “Public Place of Amusements” (PPA’s).
Paul Wertheimer says that’s simply not enough manpower to monitor all of the nightclubs in a city as large as Chicago. “They can’t do the job with that,” he says.
If you want to check the city’s inspection record for a particular nightclub, you’ll first need to find out the street address of the venue you’re interested in. Go to the city’s Department of Buildings User Agreement page, and accept the terms of the website’s license. Then type in – in separate boxes – the street number, the street direction, and the street name of the venue.
For example, the Aragon Ballroom’s address is 1106 West Lawrence; the Riviera’s address is 4746 North Racine; the Shrine’s address is 2109 South Wabash, and the MID’s address is 306 North Halsted.
The city website will then show you a list of building permits, case activity, inspections, and violations. You can click on the number of an inspection to find out details.