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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.

 

 
Lucas Museum BGA Forum
Audience at BGA event "What's The Force Behind the Lucas Museum?" / William Camargo

We had a highly competitive, in-your-face governor's race last fall that still failed to get even half of Illinois' registered voters to cast ballots.

Just over 40 percent of Chicago's eligible voters showed up four years ago when Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor.

And the Illinois primary last March set a turnout futility record of 18 percent, due in part to a lack of competition: Nearly 80 percent of the non-judicial contests in the Chicago area had only one candidate on the ballot, or no one.

As I've said in previous columns, the fight for better government has to be waged on two fronts: Watchdogs holding officials accountable and advocating reforms; and the public supporting candidates who want to serve — not just collect.

Sadly, the public hasn't been holding up its end of the bargain lately, and the breadth of civic disengagement — an apparent bi-product of apathy, alienation and demoralization — reflects an election system in desperate need of reforms that encourage more people to run for office and more voters to cast their ballots.

It's tempting to suggest there's also a lack of civic energy, but the energy is there — it just has to be tapped.

Exhibit A is the Chicago Park District's recent hearings on the Emanuel administration's support for two South Side sites to house the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

The hearings were scheduled after the library foundation criticized a University of Chicago plan to use land in one of the iconic parks — Washington or Jackson — designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, America's preeminent landscape architect.

Despite the last-minute notice, a thousand-plus Chicagoans attended the hearings — one in each park — to weigh in on the use of cherished public recreation areas for a library and museum.

More than 150 people spoke out on a wide range of issues during the six hours of hearings, including legacy land, community development, economic benefits, tourism and preservation.

South Side residents were totally engaged.

At last week's City Council meeting, the Emanuel administration proposed an intergovernmental agreement that would transfer up to 21 acres in either park to City Hall if one of those sites wins the multi-city competition for the project.

The administration's proposal will certainly spark additional praise and criticism, and we look forward to a vigorous debate on the pros and cons at subsequent hearings.

That's what civic engagement and a healthy, vibrant democracy are all about.

And it begs an obvious question: How do we transfer some of that energy to the electoral process — to encourage more people to run for office, register to vote and actually cast ballots?

An obvious place to start is by making it easier and less expensive to do all of those things, and the good news is that lawmakers are slowly implementing or considering reforms aimed at just that, including Election Day voter registration, a longer early voting period, and pilot campaign finance programs to assist candidates without deep pockets.

Legislators should also take steps to eliminate the inherent conflicts on election boards made up of office holders with a vested interest in keeping challengers off the ballot, and it's worth considering whether primary and general elections should be two or three months apart, instead of eight.

We won't be able to measure the effects of the reforms until we've gone though a few election cycles, but the goal is clear: A healthier level of civic engagement, with or without a hot button controversy like the site of a presidential library and museum.

That's a key to the strong democracy this country is supposed to stand for.

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

springfieldcapdomeBGAphoto

It’s show time again in Springfield, and the supporting cast is the same as last year — more than a hundred Democrats who maintain veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.

But there’s a new star, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who enters stage left with a fresh script that promises to replace "business as usual" with fiscal and ethical reform.

Act I will focus primarily on the state’s financial crisis — a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, stacks of unpaid bills, a broken tax system, and an unresolved pension crisis.

The audience, including the Better Government Association, will be applauding sensible tax and spending plans, but we’ll also be following smaller story lines that focus on watchdog issues, including protection of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA was strengthened five years ago, in a moment of legislative enlightenment, to give Illinois one of the nation’s best open records laws — essentially making all government documents available to the public, and limiting exemptions to proprietary information like personnel records, trade secrets and internal policy deliberations.

Sadly, those few exemptions have grown to a couple dozen in recent years as legislators passed laws that undermine FOIA, including roadblocks to thwart individuals who strain the system with frequent or voluminous FOIA requests.

Unfortunately, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated problem, and it unnecessarily restricts access to public information.

FOIA, which facilitates our ability to understand how government operates and spends our tax dollars, should be vigorously defended, along with our First Amendment freedoms.

So we’ll join the fight to strengthen FOIA and beat back new attempts to weaken it.

We’ll also be urging lawmakers to preserve reforms aimed at preventing double dipping, end-of-career "sweeteners" and other add-ons that contribute to the state’s crippling pension debt.

Those reforms were part of the landmark pension bill approved by lawmakers at the end of 2013, and if the Illinois Supreme Court finds the benefit reductions in the bill unconstitutional, lawmakers should move quickly to codify prohibitions on the rampant abuse we’ve been documenting for years.

We’ll also continue to advocate mergers and consolidations that eliminate unnecessary government offices and save millions of tax dollars in administrative costs.

A good start: Combine the state offices of treasurer and comptroller.

A good follow-up: Give local governments the authority to streamline overlapping and duplicative agencies and offices within their jurisdictions.

On the accountability front, lawmakers agreed last year on a stronger economic disclosure statement, but not in time to pass legislation. They should finish the job this year.

Election reform is also on our agenda, and we’re encouraging legislators to consider proposals that match small political contributions from individuals with grants in tax dollars.

The goal is to help everyday citizens compete as candidates or contributors with the deep pockets of special interests.

Also on the radar screen: Additional reforms to help prevent wrongful convictions, and to illuminate oversight of gaming, medical marijuana and the privatization of state assets.

So enjoy a dramatic Act 1 in Springfield, which focuses on the state’s daunting fiscal challenges.

But stick around after intermission for the subplots we’re watching. They may not be as sexy or compelling as Act 1, but they have to be performed professionally if the show expects to garner good reviews. 

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

Budget blues, shoddy services, pension perils, dubious deals, and pollution problems — just a sampling of the concerns and controversies the Better Government Association investigated this past year.

In all, the BGA – on our website and with media partners, including the Sun-Times – aired and published more than 100 stories and columns on government waste, mismanagement, inefficiency and alleged corruption around the state of Illinois.

In what's become a year-end tradition, we recently listed our Top Ten Investigations of public agencies and the officials who run them.

These investigations stand out because they identify problems that involve millions of tax dollars, put safety and the environment at risk, and benefit insiders — not taxpayers.

Among the highlights:

These "big" stories are important — no question about it — but they don't represent everything we do.

We also investigated suburban police misconduct, misuse of state grant funds, legislative conflicts of interest and water pollution concerns.


Top Ten Investigations Of 2014


We uncovered problems at the city's animal care department, the CTA pension fund, suburban municipalities, the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's office, and many other places. Examples include:

None of these investigations made our "Top Ten" list, but the work is just as important because good government is everyone's right.

And the abuse of hard-earned tax dollars isn't acceptable in any agency anywhere, regardless of size.

So when we discover glaring examples, we do our best to shine a light on them, hold the responsible public officials accountable, and demand reforms.

That's our mission.

2014 was a good year. We told a lot of important stories, many in partnership with the Sun-Times.

But there's much more to investigate and uncover, because good government is still a dream, not a reality.

So we'll double down in 2015.

And that's a New Year's pledge from all of us at the BGA.

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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