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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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The best political campaigns generally have two components: A good candidate with a strong message, and a solid organization that takes the candidate and the message to the voters, hoping they’ll cast an affirming ballot.

Civic campaigns, including the fight for better government, also have to be waged on two fronts to be successful.

Watchdogs like the Better Government Association can urge public officials to manage our hard-earned tax dollars honestly and efficiently, which we relentlessly do in a variety of ways.

But citizens have to do their part by paying attention to the issues and voting for candidates who serve the public, not themselves.

Unfortunately, too many Illinois residents are disengaged from the process, and we’re paying a high price for that — literally — in wasted and misdirected tax dollars.

Illinois has 8.9 million voting-age residents, but only 7.5 million have bothered to register or vote in any recent election.

That leaves 1.4 million, or 15 percent, sitting on the sidelines, either unregistered or inactive.

Compounding the problem is abysmally low turnout among voters who are registered. The March primary was the worst in Illinois history, a paltry 18 percent, and only half the registered voters cast a ballot in the gubernatorial election four years ago.

Slacker citizens rightly deserve much of the blame for those dismal figures, but another culprit is an election system filled with disincentives to engage.

There’s a woeful lack of competition — too many uncontested races with only one candidate running unopposed — because the system is set up to favor incumbents and discourage challengers.

Access to campaign cash is a big issue, but not the only one.

Many officeholders sit on election boards with the power to keep potential opponents off the ballot for bogus reasons — that’s a conflict, and it’s wrong — and many legislative districts are gerrymandered to give one party such an overwhelming advantage the other party doesn’t even field a candidate.

Reform groups have been trying to depoliticize the redistricting process, and that effort will continue, and voting rights activists claim 100,000 new registrations in recent months — an impressive figure and an encouraging development.

So, yes, there are wisps of reform in the air, and even the Legislature has taken several steps that make it easier to participate this year:

? Early voting is extended by several days.

? You can actually register and vote on Election Day, November 4.

? And college students will be able to cast absentee ballots on their campuses.

History suggests the changes will increase voter turnout.

In 2012 it was 12.5 points higher in the nine states with Election Day registration, and a longer early voting period generally attracts additional participation.

Conversely, some attribute turnout drops in Ohio and Florida that same year to shortened early voting periods.

So how do we maintain the reform momentum? Options worth considering include:

Making Election Day registration and extended early voting permanent, and even easier; pursuing new campaign finance and redistricting initiatives; and reconfiguring election boards to eliminate conflicts and increase competition.

But let’s face it — at the end of the day, it still comes down to John and Jane Q. Public.

None of the reforms or civic initiatives can accomplish much if regular citizens don’t use the power of the ballot box intelligently.

So if you’d like information and links to local election authorities, steps for validating registration, and locations in Chicago and suburban Cook County where you can register and vote between now and Election Day, check out our "BGA Voters’ Guide" at bettergov.org.

Good government is our right — we’re entitled to it — and the BGA will keep fighting for it 24/7.

But we can’t win the battle without an army of informed and engaged voters.

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

Cicero is back in the news, and not the famous Roman orator or the avenue in Chicago.

This is another story about the west suburban town that's been famous for being infamous since mobster Al Capone lived there in the 1920s.

The Better Government Association recently reported that a suburban waste processing company has contributed big bucks to political funds controlled by Cicero's Town President, Larry Dominick.

The firm, Heartland Recycling LLC, is a longtime Cicero contractor that's been paid more than $15 million since Dominick was elected in 2005.


READ MORE: Does Cicero Garbage Deal Stink For Taxpayers?

Garbage company is paid millions by Cicero taxpayers in no-bid deal, and donates big to Town President Larry Dominick’s campaign funds.


And the whole thing has a bad smell to it.

There's no indication any laws have been broken, and a town spokesman says it's not "pay to play."

In fact, a lot of municipal contractors donate to the politicians who hire their companies, and while watchdogs like the BGA may question the ethics of the practice, it's not illegal.

Neither is the fact that, in recent years, Heartland's gotten the business without going through a competitive bidding process, and there's not even a written contract.

Those are additional good government no-nos, but so typically Cicero — the big town with the bigger history of shady deals, waste and corruption.

One of Dominick's recent predecessors, former Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, widow of mid-level mafioso Frank Maltese, went to federal prison for her role in a mobbed-up multimillion-dollar insurance scam.

And allegations of corruption have continued under subsequent leaders, including Dominick, an ex-cop who initially ran as a reformer.

He's added numerous relatives to the payroll, paid out hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to settle sexual harassment lawsuits, and given a pal who runs a sewer company more than $1.8 million in municipal business.

That firm, like Heartland, didn't have a contract.

So even if it's not against the law, why does it keep happening?

Where's the transparency? The oversight? The accountability?

Obviously not on the town board Dominick controls, and apparently not on the minds of the voters who keep electing them.

Here's how the deal with Heartland works: Ten Cicero trucks pick up trash and recycling from approximately 23,000 residential housing units a week, and haul the waste to a Heartland transfer station along the Stevenson Expressway in Forest View to be weighed and sorted.

Cicero then pays Heartland to dispose of the trash.

A town spokesman says Dominick didn't hire the firm — Heartland has worked for Cicero since at least 2001, according to municipal records — but Dominick continues to do business with them, and they're extraordinarily generous to him.

Since 2005, Heartland and its now-former executive Thomas A. Volini donated nearly $130,000 to campaign funds controlled by or benefitting Dominick.

Even if the donations have nothing to do with the waste hauling business, and Heartland contributes because it likes Dominick's leadership, Cicero's governance is still dubious.

Without competitive bidding, how can taxpayers know if the costs could be lower, or the process fairer?

They can't, so this looks like another politically connected vendor raking in millions, even without a contract.

The town spokesman says Cicero likes the flexibility that comes with a handshake deal, but it also exposes the town to unnecessary risks.

A contract not only safeguards a municipality and a vendor by defining the costs and responsibilities of both upfront, it makes it easier for taxpayers to scrutinize the terms.

But for the last decade the town's board hasn't even approved the "arrangement" in public meetings — they've been backroom deals inaccessible to taxpayers, which is another good government no-no.

That's a lot of ethical transgressions — enough, in fact, to merit a failing grade in Ethics 101, but not enough, apparently, to earn a demerit from Cicero taxpayers.

Maybe they're just thankful the Capone crowd's not walking around the town with Tommy guns anymore.

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

Lunch is a lot more than a midday meal when you run a nonprofit watchdog organization like the Better Government Association.

In our world it’s an important opportunity to explain our mission to potential supporters.

And once a year, in the fall, we invite our friends to break bread with us at an annual luncheon, where we recap our work over the past 12 months, spell out our goals for the next year, and thank them for contributing the dollars that make it possible.

In recent years more than a thousand people have attended the events, which raise a third of our annual budget.

As most of you know, the BGA shines a light on government and holds public officials accountable by investigating, litigating, educating, advocating and communicating.

It’s labor intensive, especially our in-depth investigations, which is why we plan the luncheons carefully to maximize revenue and deliver a strong message.

Each year we invite a prominent guest speaker and choose a deserving honoree, and given the nature of our work — we toil at the busy intersection of government and politics — our luncheons frequently make news.

  • In the fall of 2009, novelist and former federal prosecutor Scott Turow called on the Illinois General Assembly to attack the state’s "culture of corruption" by adopting the recommendations of a post-Blagojevich reform commission, including limits on campaign contributions.
  • Our honoree the next year was retired Supreme Court Justice and Chicago native John Paul Stevens, who took us behind the judicial curtain to criticize the majority on the court for striking down gun control laws, and to call his 1976 vote to uphold the death penalty his all-time worst judicial decision.
  • In 2011, CBS anchor Scott Pelley played his riveting "60 Minutes" interview with a whistleblower who exposed the negligence that contributed to BP’s massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf.
  • Pelley’s CBS colleague Lara Logan joined us the following year, a month before the 2012 presidential election, and stunned the audience by accusing the Obama administration of misleading the public about a increased terrorist activity in Afghanistan, and failing to punish the extremists who killed a U.S. ambassador in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
  • Last year’s featured speakers were former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who urged citizens to speak up when they suspect public officials of misconduct, and NBC anchor Lester Holt, who showed us a video clip from a soon-to-be-aired "Dateline" story on New York City’s failure to adequately protect public housing residents from mold and other environmental threats.

Our 2014 luncheon is this week, and it includes a conversation with former "Meet the Press" host David Gregory about upcoming state and national elections, and the importance of vigilant civic and media watchdogs who hold public officials accountable.

The second topic reflects the essence of the BGA mission, and it’s a recurrent theme at all of our luncheons

This year we’re also honoring our good friends and stellar media partners at the Sun-Times for their great investigative reporting and generous support of our work.

And we’ll look at "BGA by the Numbers," which summarizes the progress of our watchdog activities in the five years I’ve had the honor and privilege of leading the organization.

We may even introduce a new member of the BGA family.

It should be another interesting event, and to paraphrase an oft-repeated line from economist Milton Friedman, it’s not a free lunch.

In fact, the minute the tables are cleared we’ll start using the money we raise to elevate our fight against the government corruption and inefficiency that’s still too prevalent around the state.

That should burn off a lot of calories.

So bon appétit!

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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October 17, 2014

Andrew Schroedter/BGA, with Chicago Sun-Times

CPS Hires Clout-Heavy Firm Accused Of Fraud

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