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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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Inspector General or Inspector Clouseau?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The former is a title for a job that, done right, shines a bright enough light on a government agency and holds enough of its public officials accountable to increase honestly, efficiency, transparency and accountability.

It’s a civic watchdog’s dream.

The latter is the inept French detective immortalized by Peter Sellers in a series of big screen "Pink Panther" comedies.

His lame antics were enough to make Sherlock Holmes turn over in his fictional grave, and serious watchdogs blanch.

The two extremes come to mind following a recent Better Government Association examination of budgets, staffing, authority and impact in seven IG offices that oversee government in Chicago: City administration, aldermen, parks, housing, schools, community colleges and public buildings.

Transit agencies, including the CTA, are now under the purview of a state IG.

Collectively, the seven city IG offices produce hundreds of investigations every year, but two — the Housing Authority and Public Building Commission — don’t even release their findings, so we don’t know what they’re doing, and the overall track record of the others is mixed when it comes to busting and rooting out Chicago-scale corruption schemes.

The good news: Their audits and investigations have led to nearly 250 employee terminations, resignations and suspensions, and the disqualification of a couple of dozen vendors.

But most of the disciplinary actions stem from minor, low-level infractions, including residency violations, harassment allegations, mismanagement and theft.

And there’s a curious shortage of sweeping, high-profile investigations in a city with an infamous history of shady deals, outsized scams and 30-plus aldermen sent off to prison.

So what’s the problem? And why aren’t the internal watchdogs catching bigger fish in their nets?

The IGs blame it on too few investigative tools, and too little legal independence, financial firepower and political backing to launch or complete large-scale probes; and an isolation from other watchdog offices that prevents collaboration on major cases.

Most lick their wounds quietly, but not the quintessentially enfeebled lapdog — City Council IG Faisal Khan — who is feuding publicly with Mayor Emanuel and powerful aldermen over his limited power and skimpy budget.

Khan appears to be on the way out, but the dustup has a hidden benefit: It focuses attention on smart ways to expand the scope and impact of the city’s internal watchdog work, including the possible creation of a centralized inspector general’s office, modeled after the New York Department of Investigations, to oversee City Hall, the Council, and the sister agencies, and to give the office broader powers, greater independence and more resources.

New York’s watchdog agency dates back to the 1870s — the "Boss" Tweed era — and it has an annual budget of $21 million to investigate elected officials, public employees, and contractors.

The office doesn’t need permission to investigate anything, it has complete access to city computers and records, and it can issue and enforce its own subpoenas.

New York’s IG can also marshal and direct resources wherever they’re needed, even across agency lines, which means a sweeping investigation won’t be sidetracked by a lack of manpower or jurisdiction.

Observers say the model could work in Chicago, and they’re right: One watchdog with a loud bark, sharp teeth and the tenacity of a pit bull could be an extraordinarily valuable anti-corruption weapon, and we’d love to see Mayor Emanuel fulfill one of his old campaign promises by embracing the concept.

Sadly, most of our elected officials prefer bumbling lapdogs like Inspector Clouseau, which is fine when you’re choosing an "oldie" to watch on Netflix, but not when you’re trying to clean up a city with a history of corruption like Chicago’s.

That dog has to hunt.

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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The scrap heap of Illinois history is piled high with long-forgotten government reports.

Many of them deserve their fade into tattered obscurity, but occasionally a research effort merits a bright spotlight.

And that's the case with an incisive, hard-hitting task force study — released in June by key members of the state's General Assembly — on last year's controversial, contentious and traumatic closing of 50 Chicago public schools, mostly in minority communities on the South and West Sides.

The report doesn't mince words, blasting the system's handling of a shutdown unprecedented in scope, and sharply critiquing CPS management of its remaining schools and facilities.

Surprisingly, the findings landed with a thud, generating minimal media coverage and scant reaction from lawmakers and community leaders.

Had this been a movie release, the production would have been sent "straight to video."

The Better Government Association's not sure why the veil of silence has descended, in part because only one lawmaker on the task force answered our investigators' calls and emails.

The legislators were equally elusive in July when Catalyst Chicago, a nonprofit that reports on CPS, tried to get some answers.

That's too bad because the report raises important questions about CPS decision-making that deserve answers.

The task force was co-chaired by two Chicago-area Democrats, Rep. Cynthia Soto and Sen. Heather Steans, and they take CPS to task for:

  • Failing to announce the closing list in time for students to apply to magnet or selective enrollment schools.
  • Rejecting feedback from independent hearing officers who disagreed with some closing recommendations.
  • Refusing to consider the assessments of reputable researchers on the negative impact closings would have on class size at receiving schools.
  • Not revealing the full cost, or savings, of the entire relocation process.
  • And neglecting to factor in the impact closings might have on transferred students.

You can read the executive summary of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force online.

Given the nature of the findings — which were sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS leadership — you'd think someone in authority would be clamoring for public hearings or further investigation.

In fact, the report cries out for an examination of "best practices" in other municipalities that managed school closings so Chicago can handle them better in the future.

The point is: We could all learn something, especially the mayor, who quarterbacked a process that's having a tremendous impact on Chicago communities, parents and children.

Let's be clear — we're not endorsing a process aimed at beating up on City Hall or CPS leadership.

School and city officials who disagree with the task force conclusions should have an opportunity to address the concerns that were raised.

So why isn't it happening?

One conspiracy theory suggests that Speaker Madigan is helping Emanuel by keeping the lid on a super-sensitive community issue that could reignite the smoldering embers of the school closing firestorm, and smoke out CPS on future facility plans.

Madigan's spokesman scoffs at that scenario, pointing out that state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, could convene a hearing.

Chapa LaVia told the BGA last week that she and her colleagues are "working on it," but she didn't elaborate.

The only task force member who was willing to talk to us, State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Sycamore), thinks there's more work to do.

"What the task force investigated was the tip of the iceberg," he says.

That sounds right, but it sure feels like a lot of powerful people would prefer to keep this report out of the sunlight and locked in a deep freeze until it can be transferred to the growing trash heap of orphaned government reports.

That would be a big mistake.

A better plan is to thaw it out and serve it up for public consumption.

That might leave a bitter taste in our mouths, but it would definitely be good for our civic health and well-being.

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

We had a dog when I was growing up, a spaniel named Toby that was sweet, frisky and a little neurotic, like the rest of the family.

Dogs also populated our entertainment world, including "Lassie" and "Rin Tin Tin" on their weekly TV shows, Snoopy in the "Peanuts" comic strip and "Old Yeller" in the big-screen Disney weeper.

Even the Better Government Association has a long-standing soft spot for our four-legged friends — the BGA mascot has been a bulldog for nearly a century — and we're thinking about adopting a rescue canine to join our watchdog team.

So it's disappointing, and at times heartbreaking, to watch the city's Animal Care and Control agency (ACC) doing what critics consider a poor job of handling lost, abandoned and stray pets and wildlife.

In fact, it's enough to make a pet lover howl, which many of us are doing these days.

The bottom line is that animals — the main ACC facility at 27th and Western impounded nearly 23,000 and euthanized more than 6,500 of them last year — aren't treated as humanely as they should be, the agency's not adhering to its mission well enough, and our tax dollars are being spent in questionable ways.

Here's a recap of recent problems:

  • WBBM radio reported huge delays in the agency's response to calls about the abusive treatment of animals.
  • Two dogs were accidentally killed at the pound, one mistakenly euthanized before a scheduled adoption, the other apparently choked to death by a city worker trying to control the animal. And insiders tell us other tragic "accidents" have gone unreported.
  • As the BGA revealed in the Sun-Times, ACC hired a top deputy with no animal control experience and problems on his previous city job, including three suspensions.
  • The agency's lack of public transparency has been dreadful, so bad that the BGA sued ACC twice in the last few months to obtain records they refuse to release, though we believe we're entitled to them under the Freedom of Information Act.

Months of research have also uncovered run-of-the-mill concerns that reflect poor management, including: Dirty kennels; animals left in cages with collars that can choke them; in-fighting between employees and volunteers; other questionable hiring decisions; rude, unprofessional behavior in dealing with the public; and union contracts, inked by the city, that make it difficult to get rid of problem employees.

One way or another, the agency needs to get its act together.

We understand that animal control is a small department by city government standards, with an annual operating budget of only $5 million, and just 80 full- and part-time positions.

We also realize that animal issues pale in comparison to human ones, including poverty, joblessness, crime, educational underachievement — even the city's alarming ambulance shortage.

But this is also important.

People care about pets — just ask the folks at PAWS Chicago and the Anti-Cruelty Society who provide a wide range of animal care and adoption services to grateful owners — and the city agency has its own critical role to play.

It's tasked, first and foremost, with making sure dangerous animals aren't roaming the streets, which is an essential public-safety function.

That's the "control" part, but the mission also includes "care," which is too often more like "care-less."

So what's the answer?

We've heard mostly negative reaction to reform ideas that have been floated in recent years, including a merger of Chicago and Cook County's animal agencies, or a shift of ACC responsibilities from the city to the nonprofits.

So a logical step is for the interested parties — experts, rescue groups, volunteers and government — to keep talking about better, more professional ways to do the job.

The conversation should also include the city Inspector General's office, which has been sharply critical of ACC over the years.

On the positive side, the Sun-Times' Fran Spielman revealed this week that physical conditions at the main ACC facility will be upgraded with an $8.2 million face-lift, paid for with tax dollars and a $2 million dollar private donation, and that's an encouraging development.

But it won't automatically improve management, training and accountability — key components that require more effective leadership.

And the sooner the Emanuel administration makes that a priority, the sooner we can leave the howling and barking to the dogs.

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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