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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.

 

 

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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The Capitol in Springfield is where elected officials allocate most of our state tax dollars, make major decisions that affect our lives, and manage a government wracked with chronic fiscal and ethical problems.

Springfield is also a small media market where, despite hard work and good intentions, there aren't enough news resources to hold our state officials sufficiently accountable.

Is there a connection between paragraphs one and two?

I think so, and I say that after spending a professional lifetime covering and watching Illinois government and politics, much of it in Springfield, as a Chicago-based reporter with the Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7; and now as the head of the non-partisan, non-profit Better Government Association.

I've witnessed news bureaus assigned to the Capitol shrink alarmingly over the past decade-plus, from teams of three or four journalists to a single reporter assisted by an intern to, in some cases, no coverage at all.

It's no one's fault — the economics of the news business, especially the print side, have changed dramatically as people get increasingly more of their information on-line at their desks or on the move instead of reading newspapers or tuning in to regular news programs.

Springfield residents have also been under-served historically by federal prosecutors who, for the most part, lacked the aggressive resolve of Chicago's corruption-busting U.S. attorneys, which may explain why a limited number of state officials — excluding governors — have been punished for bad behavior over the years.

This combination of fewer watchdogs and less vigilance in the seat of state government presented the Better Government Association with a challenge and an opportunity as we considered the best way to fulfill one of our key objectives:

Expanding the scope and impact of our watchdog work beyond the Chicago area.

We decided to start by building relationships with Springfield's business, civic and media communities in advance of opening a BGA satellite office in the Capitol.

It's been a learning experience that's required an ability to listen — not just talk or lecture — and to appreciate the obvious:

Springfield is miles from Chicago, literally and figuratively.

State government in Springfield, for better or worse, has an outsized effect on people's lives.

You either work for it or with it, directly or indirectly, or someone close to you does — a friend, a relative or a neighbor.

That makes government extremely important, and necessary, to the lives and livelihoods of many Springfield residents, even if it's often wasteful, inefficient and corrupt.

Criticism of our state officials, and their policies, has to be tempered by that reality, so it requires a watchdog approach that's sensitive, measured and calm.

Springfield relationships also require a lengthy trust-building process to reassure even the most watchdog-friendly supporters we're not carpetbaggers or marauders bent on imposing Chicago-style values and standards on the sensible people of Central Illinois.

So we've adjusted, and in the last year-plus we've:

  • Raised significant dollars from Chicago-area donors who appreciate the importance of a BGA presence in Springfield;
  • Contracted with talented consultants in Springfield to work with us on legislation and civic engagement;
  • Partnered with news organizations on investigative stories, opinion pieces and talk radio segments;
  • And coordinated meet-and-greet events with as many local leaders as possible.
  • Along the way we've made dozens of acquaintances and some very good friends who've agreed to join, or consider joining, our new BGA Springfield Advisory Board, which is helping us build our Springfield watchdog program.

Most Springfield residents want honest, efficient government, and a healthy business climate, so our initiative is off to a good start, but it's still a work in progress.

In our Chicago office we've conducted more than 300 investigations over the past five years, prompting more than 90 tangible reforms that have held dozens of wayward officials accountable and saved millions of tax dollars.

We've also engaged more than 10,000 citizens through our training and education programs.

Now it's time to put some numbers on the board in Springfield.

State government, as we've written and talked about extensively, needs a fiscal and ethical overhaul, and Springfield is where much the repair work should be done.

So it's been exciting to recruit a first-rate fix-up team to participate in the overhaul.

We're still trying to decide on the right parts to use, and how to assemble them.

But as they say at the start of each year's Indy 500:

"Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."

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

One of my favorite TV shows in the '80s was the "People's Court," where average citizens argued small cases in front of feisty Judge Joseph Wapner.

The show inspired an entire genre of quasi-real courtroom programs that continue to populate the airwaves today with the likes of Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis and several others.

As for the "People's Court," I can still picture emcee Doug Llewelyn advising viewers not to take the law into their own hands.

"You take 'em to court,' " he'd say.


READ MORE: BGA Legal Action


And decades later, that's our approach at the Better Government Association in disputes with public agencies over the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Citizens and media outlets typically haggle with government officials over the interpretation of FOIA when their requests are denied. Some adjust their submissions or ask the Illinois Attorney General to step in or simply give up.

We take 'em to court, because we won't tolerate attempts to abuse or weaken the state's open records law.

Recently we urged Gov. Pat Quinn to veto a bill that would've watered down FOIA — he did, and we're appreciative — and we regularly file lawsuits when government ignores repeated requests to comply with the law.

Last month, the BGA sued the Illinois High School Association for stonewalling our request for sponsorship contracts and other records, and defending their recalcitrance by claiming that, as a nonprofit, they're not subject to FOIA.

We reject that argument since the IHSA regulates virtually every aspect of high school sports, which are paid for with tax dollars.

In addition, the association brandished the shield of government protection a few years ago, when it was fighting a defamation lawsuit, by calling itself a "state actor" that's "owned" and "controlled" by public schools.

The IHSA can't have it both ways, so our lawsuit argues the public has a right to see how it operates.

Sadly, the association's secrecy reflects a disturbing trend among nonprofits and other private entities that perform public or quasi-public duties to use their governance structures as an excuse to withhold information about their finances and inner workings.

The nonprofit that runs Navy Pier made the same argument when the BGA sought employment and contract information, so we responded by taking Navy Pier Inc. to court, and that case is pending.

The BGA has also sued Cook County to find out who's been trying to use clout to wield influence, Chicago Animal Control to obtain a video that might help the public determine whether events surrounding a dog's death were whitewashed, the Chicago Transit Authority Pension Fund to see what gifts and perks its director has received, and several municipalities that wouldn't turn over severance agreements, payroll records or cost figures for police training.

We don't file these suits to get our kicks or stir up dust — in fact, there's much more at stake than the documents we're seeking or the revelations the information may lead to.

It's about the public's right to know how its government works, which is vital to a healthy democracy.

In 1788, patriot Patrick Henry said, "the liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

The people who run the IHSA don't have to read history or the FOIA statute or the BGA lawsuit to understand why they should support the public's right to know. They can turn to a familiar source — their own website — which includes a mission statement and a set of beliefs espousing the virtues of diversity, sportsmanship, equality and the pursuit of excellence.

"IHSA believes integrity and honesty are non-negotiable," the mission statement says, and we couldn't agree more.

The IHSA shouldn't be flip-flopping over its role as a public entity just to protect its own interests.

Since most of its members are public schools that must comply with FOIA, shouldn't the IHSA be held to the same standard?

And how can the association claim to have the best interests of public school students at heart when it won't provide their families with information about how it operates?

We're hoping the IHSA, Navy Pier and the other public procrastinators eventually realize a big part of serving the public is transparency, not socking taxpayers with big legal bills to resist it.

Our record in these cases is essentially perfect because FOIA law is on our side, so we're pretty sure Judge Wapner would have banged his gavel and ruled in our favor on any of his episodes.

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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