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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

 


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Bad ideas, unlike fine wine, don't get better with age.

And that's especially true of HB 3796, a bill that would weaken FOIA, the state's Freedom of Information Act.

It was a bad idea when it breezed through the Illinois House and Senate in May with little explanation or debate.

So a coalition that included the Better Government Association and the Illinois attorney general's office asked Gov. Quinn to veto the measure, which he did in June.


READ MORE: BGA Backs Gov.’s FOIA Bill Veto At Press Conference

Open-government advocates urge state lawmakers not to try override.


But here we are, on the eve of the fall veto session in Springfield, and there's a movement afoot to override the governor's veto, which means it's time to redouble our opposition so that doesn't happen because it's still a bad idea.

The bill would give government agencies more time to respond to comprehensive FOIA requests from everyday citizens, and — this is the deal breaker — charge them up to $100 per request, which effectively prices low income people out of the public records market.

That's patently unfair — they're entitled to the public documents that explain how their tax dollars are being spent and the key policy decisions that affect their lives are being made — so the bill deserves to remain comfortably interred in the cemetery of ill-advised legislation.

Even proponents of the measure acknowledge its shortcomings.

During the Illinois Municipal League's annual conference in September, Brian Day, who led the league's legal team in getting the bill passed, admitted the legislation wouldn't accomplish its objectives because its language is confusing and riddled with loopholes.

"This was not a well-written statute," Day told a ballroom filled with municipal officials during the first day of the conference. "It would have been nice to have this, but it's flawed."

The passage of the bill was also flawed from a good government standpoint.

It sailed through both legislative chambers in just six days, which is not enough time for a thorough vetting of its content, objectives and potential consequences.

That's what public hearings and due diligence are for.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the bill is also unnecessary. Her letter urging a Quinn veto pointed out that FOIA already includes provisions that give government officials extra time to respond to requests "that would significantly burden its operations" or submissions from serial FOIA filers.

In addition, her office has a public access team that serves as the state's official FOIA "referee," so government agencies with questions about how to negotiate FOIA disputes can utilize that service, like hundreds of citizens and journalists do every year when their requests are thwarted.

The government agencies that backed HB3796 view FOIA as a nuisance, or a distraction from the "real" work they have to do, but let's remind them the "real" work is to serve the public, and that includes the timely and inexpensive release of public information.

So here's hoping state lawmakers realize a better way to serve their constituents is to step back and take a thoughtful approach to resolving FOIA concerns, instead of voting again for a bad bill that represents a knee-jerk response to political skirmishes inside some municipalities.

FOIA should be sacred. It's our most effective tool for shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.

And, like fine wine, it does get better with age when it's handled with care.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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Dear Governor-elect Rauner,

Please join us at a Better Government Association luncheon in Springfield on Tuesday, Nov. 18, for a conversation about fiscal and ethical reform in Illinois.

I'll give you the details in a minute, but first, congratulations on your victory, after a bruising campaign that consumed a lot of energy, airtime and money, much of it your own.

It was the most expensive governor's race in Illinois history —nearly $100 million — but it turned on a simple fact: A majority of voters want a new approach to running the state, and you promised one.

Now the campaign is over, and we don't need any more sales pitches. We need solutions.

Illinois, as you know all too well, is facing daunting fiscal and ethical challenges, and taxpayers want to know how their new governor intends to work with legislative leaders on a long-term rescue plan before it gets worse.

The most pressing initial question is the future of the state income tax, which went up by a whopping 67 per cent in 2011. The increase was supposed to be temporary, and the phase out is scheduled to begin on Jan. 1.

That's good news for taxpayers, but not for a state budget that stands to lose several billion tax dollars.

Are you comfortable with that, and do you still want to eliminate the entire tax increase over the next four years, as you've indicated? If so, we need a detailed plan for dealing with the lost revenue.

Ilinois residents also deserve a broader discussion about taxes in general — what the state can realistically expect to collect each year, and how the burden should be balanced among the individuals and businesses that pay income, sales and property taxes.

In other words, what's the fairest mix for Illinois?

Those tax and revenue questions have to be answered quickly to address a serious budget shortfall, a massive stack of unpaid bills, and pension obligations that eat up increasingly more of our limited revenue each year.

And speaking of our pension crisis — it's still the worst in the country — you predict the courts will find the reforms approved by the Legislature last year unconstitutional.

If that happens, then what? The 401k-style plan you'd like to implement? Or a reworked version of the current defined benefits approach?

The point is, Illinois needs a viable "Plan B," and that requires another round of intense negotiations with the public employee unions.

The backup plan should also address the loopholes and abuses that unjustly pad the pensions of clouted public officials, draining the state's scarce resources even more, and further exacerbating the public's waning confidence in government.

Restoring that confidence will require many other reforms, and here are a few you should consider: Strengthen the Freedom of Information Act to enhance transparency; make public officials disclose more information on their ethics statements; address the conflicts that arise when part-time lawmakers have private sector jobs that intersect with government; and create a fairer and more accessible election system to encourage competition and participation.

We'd also appreciate your commitment to enacting additional reforms aimed at reducing the wrongful convictions we exposed in a 2011 investigation. That can help local governments avoid multi-million-dollar lawsuits, and reduce the incalculable human toll on those who spend years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

And finally, for now at least, we'd like to see your long-term plan for reducing Illinois' 7,000 units of local government — that's a couple thousand more than any other state — through consolidations, mergers and reorganizations.

"Smart streamlining" is still one of our top priorities, and we welcome you to the fight.

We don't expect you to have all the answers right away, but it's time to begin the conversation, and a good way to do that is to attend our Springfield Advisory Board luncheon on the future of Illinois.

Former Governor Jim Edgar will be joining us for a question and answer session, and we'd like you to share your thoughts and ideas.

We're pretty sure you'll be in Springfield on the 18th because the fall veto session begins the following day, so drop by for an hour to begin this all-important conversation.

You invited voters in a campaign ad to throw you out in four years if you don't follow through on your promise to "shake up Springfield and bring back Illinois."

Well, four years is a long way off, so we're inviting you to start shakin' and bakin' with us on Nov. 18.

Sincerely,

Andy Shaw
President and CEO
Better Government Association

Tom_Dart_public_domainWhen I joined the Better Government Association in 2009, the venerable watchdog organization was still shining most of its light on the public officials in charge of Chicago and Cook County, where decades of government corruption turned those geographic entities into caricatures with ignominious monikers like "Clout City" and "Crook County."

City and county administrations have taken significant steps to shed those pejorative labels in recent years, and that's commendable, but they still need to be closely watched, and we're on it.

But waste, fraud and misconduct don't stop at the doors of City Hall and the County Building, so we've been allocating increasingly more time and resources to the challenge of holding government officials accountable in the suburbs and collar counties, where bad behavior is still flourishing, in part because not enough people are watching.

Consider this: Since July, the BGA has printed or aired nearly 40 investigations, and almost half of them revealed suburban officials engaged in nepotism, financial chicanery, dubious campaign spending and outright corruption.

This isn't breaking news. When Dick Simpson, the former Chicago alderman turned UIC political science professor, researched suburban corruption in 2012, he catalogued 140 convictions of wayward public officials since the early '70s in suburbs stretching from Antioch, near the Wisconsin border, to Braidwood in southwest suburban Will County, and multiple offenders in infamous dens of iniquity in between, including Cicero, Chicago Heights and Melrose Park.

The sad reality is that suburban news outlets, civic gadflies and watchdog groups don't have enough manpower to adequately monitor the hundreds of public agencies that spend billions of tax dollars in the suburbs.

And many of the communities that need internal watchdogs the most lack the resources to staff a fulltime inspector general's office.

That's one reason Simpson followed up on his report by suggesting the creation of an inspector general's office to watch over the suburbs. The idea got a cool reception at the time from public officials who weren't eager to face IG scrutiny, but last year Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart revived the concept by offering the services of his newly-created Inspector General unit to the 140 cities, towns and villages in suburban Cook.

So far, only six suburbs have taken him up on the offer by entering into IG agreements, but it's a start.

And the village board in south suburban Harvey took a major good government step last week by asking Dart's team to investigate alleged misconduct in its police department, despite Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg's strong opposition to a sheriff's posse riding into their town.

Having an inspector general doesn't automatically eliminate corruption, as a recent BGA investigation of IG offices within the city of Chicago revealed. Many have limited scope, authority and resources, but they've still nabbed thieves red-handed and identified internal control flaws that put taxpayer dollars at risk.

And sometimes the mere presence of an IG can serve as a deterrent for wayward public officials, and a beacon of hope for citizens who've lost faith in their government, according to Dart spokeswoman Cara Smith.

"Many of these communities … they can't recover without significant resources from the county or the state," Smith said. "When mismanagement impacts people's lives, we've got to take that seriously."

She's right, but the Cook County Board has refused to give Dart the authority to send his IG team, uninvited, into suburbs with a history of fiscal and ethical missteps, and the state legislature hasn't addressed the issue yet.

So until there's agreement on the best approach — and right after the election is a good time for the stakeholders to start hammering one out — more suburbs should follow Harvey's lead by enlisting Dart's clean-up crew, even if their mayors don't like the smell of disinfectant.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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