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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.




In Glendale Heights, a town in DuPage County, your chances of getting a government job appear to be greatly enhanced if you’re related to the boss. A daughter, daughter-in-law and two sons of Village President Linda Jackson are set to collectively make about $240,000 in base salary from their local government jobs in Glendale Heights this year.

Last year, two grandsons worked seasonal jobs, and another relative previously worked for the village. That’s enough to put the brazen nepotism of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios to shame.

Jackson and her aides claim there’s nothing wrong with this scenario — family members should have a right to public employment in their hometown as long as there are strict rules in place to prevent hanky-panky in the hiring process.

But who oversees municipal hiring in Glendale Heights?

That would be Ms. Jackson, who’s been village president — mayor, essentially — since 1999.

Government as a "family affair" doesn’t look or smell right — nepotism invites favoritism — and the only way around it is an unambiguous statute that prevents top executives from hiring their own family members or steering them into government jobs they control.

A recent Better Government Association investigation found other egregious examples of family hiring in the suburbs of Summit and Calumet City, and it’s been widely reported in many other places over the years. Summit reacted to an earlier nepotism revelation with a pledge to "study" reforms recommended by the BGA, then turned around and hired a trustee’s niece. So much for "studying."

As for Glendale Heights, Jackson told us it would be unfair to prevent her children from getting jobs at the village hall:

"Should my kids be punished or have it held against them because I am mayor?"

That, unfortunately, is the wrong question. Jackson should be asking if it’s fair to other Glendale Heights residents who may be well qualified for village jobs, but aren’t likely to get them if a relative of is applying. Or whether any chief executive should be allowed to use local tax dollars to hire family members,

The answer to both is "no," and we’d encourage Jackson to take a 20-minute drive to the town of Bartlett, northwest of Glendale Heights, which has a much different view of nepotism.

In 2013, the village banned the hiring of relatives of elected officials or municipal officers unless, on rare occasions, three-quarters of the village board votes to waive the prohibition to fill a key position quickly.

"Nepotism in village government is contrary to good governance," Bartlett’s 2013 law states.

Employees need to understand, the law goes on to explain, that promotions should be based on competence, not clout, because the appearance of family influence can lead to "erosion of public confidence.

"Nepotism creates an appearance of impropriety, whether or not any actual improper activities exist, and can hinder investigations of alleged or actual improprieties, further eroding effectiveness, integrity and public confidence in public institutions."

Bartlett’s got it right, and other governments in Illinois should view its ban as a "best practice" that merits consideration.

Government should be a service — not a family business — in Glendale Heights, and every other public venue funded with our tax dollars. We elect and appoint public officials to take care of our business, not their relatives.

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

Courtesy: Society of Midland Authors and the Sun-Times

It's all there.

Dishonest Chicago aldermen, crooked Cook County pols, sleazy suburban overlords and untoward state officials.

There's also: infamous shoeboxes stuffed with thousands in embezzled cash, courtesy of the late Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell; the groundbreaking "Hired Truck" scandal that rocked former Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration; and the Mirage Tavern sting, where the Sun-Times and Better Government Association teamed up to snare greedy municipal inspectors.

And let's not forget the trials and tribulations of two former governors — impeached and imprisoned Rod Blagojevich, and his predecessor, George Ryan, who recently completed his hitch in the pen.

Those stories and hundreds more — in fact, a veritable encyclopedia of three-plus decades of bad behavior in Illinois political circles — come to us from longtime public corruption chroniclers Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and current University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor, and Thomas J. Gradel, a freelance writer and media consultant who worked in state government in the '70s.

They've co-authored the page-turning and comprehensive "Corrupt Illinois," a self-styled tale of "patronage, cronyism and criminality" in Illinois.

It's a "must read" for anyone interested in a definitive account of the public thievery — the "culture of corruption" — that's permeated the everyday workings of government, robbing regular citizens of their hard-earned tax dollars, depriving them of honest services, and eroding their civic pride.

"We do not have a few 'rotten apples,' Simpson and Gradel write. "We have a rotten apple barrel and a pervasive culture of corruption."

For those who take a perverse pride in our state's fondness for bending rules until they break, this book is the ultimate scorecard of snarky behavior.

Did you know, for example, that 33 Chicago aldermen have been convicted and sent to jail since 1973, and two others died before their trials? The authors' tongue-in-cheek conclusion: "The federal crime rate in the City Council is higher than in the most dangerous ghetto in the city."

A few other takeaway figures in the book: 1,913 individuals were convicted of public corruption in Illinois between 1976 and 2012. That's 52 a year, or one per week.

Most are from the Chicago area, but several hundred engaged in nefarious activities in Downstate cities, towns and hamlets.

The authors credit much of their corruption data to the investigative work of the BGA, media watchdogs, the feds and other reformers.

Yes — it's a mountain of malfeasance, but Simpson and Gradel aren't ready to throw in the towel on our system of government. They argue some things are actually getting better: Recent city, county and state reforms have raised the ethics bar, and there's much more government transparency and accountability than in the days of Democratic and Republican Machine politics. Toward the end of "Corrupt Illinois" the authors suggest additional remediation, including: More internal government watchdogs, campaign finance reform, a fair remap of legislative districts, better ballot access, and an easier voting process.

The BGA supports those measures and remains committed to combatting the "culture of corruption" through our investigations with media partners like the Sun-Times, and our independent policy initiatives.

We recognize, as "Corrupt Illinois" points out, that brazen insiders will always finds ways to subvert the rules for personal gain.

But we can't help envisioning a time when that energy and enterprise is directed toward making Illinois a more honest, open and productive place to live and work.

That might not give Simpson and Gradel ammunition for another good book. But it might finally give the rest of us a good state.

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


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

That basic democratic principle is still important more than 200 years later.

Watchdogs, including the Better Government Association, rely on Illinois' Freedom of Information Act to obtain most public records, which enables us to shine a light on government and hold officials accountable for the way they spend our tax dollars and make policy decisions that affect our lives.

In short, to investigate the "transactions of our rulers" in a state where those transactions are too often the product of patronage, nepotism, inside deals, and conflicts of interest.

Patrick Henry would probably recognize the latest skirmish in our ongoing fight to make government transparent: We asked the Village of Rosemont—neighbor of O'Hare Airport and home to the Allstate Arena, Stephens Convention Center, and many other publicly owned facilities—for copies of its 2014 rental contracts for entertainment events, including country music superstar Garth Brooks' concerts.

We wanted to see how Rosemont managed those events, but the village wouldn't give us the most important details: How much they took in, and what they paid out in incentives to win the contracts.

Rosemont officials hid behind a new village ordinance classifying the information as "secret" and claiming their right, as a "home rule" unit of government, to determine their own FOIA exemptions.

You don't need to be Patrick Henry to play this forward: One home rule unit after another making the same claim and shutting us out. We've already seen city, county and state agencies, and many municipalities, force us into litigation to keep the "liberties of the people" secure.

So, as we’ve done a couple dozen times before when government stonewalls us, we’re asking the courts to make Rosemont comply, and we’re encouraged by Attorney General Lisa Madigan's binding opinion against the village’s intransigence.

Hopefully Rosemont will see the light, but if history is a guide, this won't be our last FOIA fight because public officials are increasingly ignoring or denying our requests until they're faced with a lawsuit. There simply aren't enough disincentives to convince government that transparency is our right. And the horror stories we hear from hundreds of regular people who take our FOIA training courses every year suggest secrecy has reached epidemic proportions in Illinois.

We've also seen FOIA eroded in Springfield by legislators more committed to the convenience of their counterparts in local government than our right to transparency.

FOIA can certainly be improved—we support changes that make the process easier for the public and government—and we've encouraged officials to work with us on a balanced reform effort. But we're reminded of another famous American whose perspective is laced with irony: Former President Richard Nixon, who resigned in the middle of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s:

"When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and eventually incapable of determining their own destinies," Nixon said.

Maybe that’s the point of this FOIA abuse: Keep power in the hands of the insiders and away from the people.

That's why we'll keep fighting for the transparency we deserve with every available weapon.

Patrick Henry and the other patriots who shed their blood and gave their lives to create this great democracy deserve no less.

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

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