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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.

 

 

The Illinois legislature's "diet doctor" is asking his fattest patients to swallow a bitter streamlining pill and, as you might expect, the Rx is meeting a lot of resistance.

I'm talking about Rep. Jack Franks' attempt to downsize a public sector that's morbidly obese.

Illinois, as I've mentioned before, has nearly 7,000 separate units of government, which is 2,000 — or 40 percent — more than any other state.

Many reformers, including Franks and the Better Government Association, argue it's time to eliminate some units and consolidate others to provide more efficient services at a lower cost to taxpayers.

That's eminently logical but extraordinarily difficult, as Franks learned during two challenging years as chairman of the Local Government Consolidation Commission, where the concept of a state-mandated diet met strong opposition from local governments that claim their offices perform important services and should be retained in their current form.

The commission recently issued its final report, which Franks summarizes this way:

"After a significant amount of research and debate, our main focus became empowering local citizens to be able to make their own choices."

He's right — these should be local decisions, not state mandates —and to that end the veteran Democrat from McHenry County introduced several bills: One gives 150 local units of government the power to dissolve if they don't already have it, another extends DuPage County's streamlining authority to Illinois' other 101 counties, and a third imposes a four-year moratorium on the state's ability to establish new units of government.

Franks says the measures would "increase the power of self-determination available to local taxpayers while ensuring the General Assembly doesn't add to the problem by creating more government to replace anything that's consolidated."

Two of his proposals have made it through the House, and a third is struggling, so the outcome is uncertain.

But one thing is clear: This is a significant reform effort in a state where it's much easier to add government than subtract it.

For instance, it takes only 100 registered voters to start a new park district, but 20 percent of the registered voters to eliminate one.

That would be 11,500 in northwest suburban Arlington Heights.

There are also limitations and ambiguities in state law that discourages efforts to combine library or sanitary districts.

None of this is surprising in a state where government is frequently viewed first as an employer, contractor and tax collector, and last as a service provider.

That may work well for the insiders who benefit, but not the taxpayers who foot the bill or the residents who depend on the services, so Franks is asking for help in getting these downsizing reforms adopted.

"Our report charts a course for future legislation," Franks says, "and a challenge of such complexity will require stakeholders from across the state to work together with taxpayers and government leaders at all levels.

"The media and groups like the BGA are going to be critical to making the importance of this issue known to a larger audience."

Franks is right — "smart streamlining," as the BGA calls it, is complicated and daunting, but it's also a key to a healthier state, which is vitally important to residents and businesses alike.

So "Dr. Franks" — we appreciate your Rx, and we'll try to help you administer the bitter diet pill to your corpulent patients.

Let the healing begin.

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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Former police Cmdr. Jon Burge | Sun-Times files

In Chicago, the term "police brutality" is inextricably linked to former Cmdr. Jon Burge's sadistic South Side homicide squad, which imposed extreme measures, including torture, to extract false confessions from dozens of suspects.

Burge's "Midnight Crew" may be the most visible symbol of excessive force, but from a legal and fiscal standpoint they're actually a relatively small part of a shockingly pervasive citywide problem uncovered by a Better Government Association investigation the Sun-Times published a week ago.

Brutality-related lawsuits have cost Chicago taxpayers $521 million over the last decade — that's more than half a billion dollars — and Burge's team accounts only for about 15 percent of that staggering figure.

In 2013 alone, the city paid out $84.6 million in settlements, judgments, legal fees and other expenses, more than triple the budgeted amount.

That's a huge expenditure for a city with billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations, and a budget crisis severe enough to force mental health clinic shutdowns, reduced library hours and higher fees for water, parking and other services.

We're not suggesting victims of police brutality don't deserve to be compensated — in some cases no amount of money can make up for ruined lives and lost loved ones — but at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is contemplating painful tax and fee increases to deal with the pension crisis, the budget impact of police misconduct is huge.

The half-billion spent on these cases could have built five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, repaved 500 miles of arterial streets, or paid off a big chunk of the pension bill.

An Emanuel spokesman says the city is dealing with the problem of excessive force by expanding police training, and hoping to discourage lawsuits by taking more cases to trial instead of settling out of court.

Obviously, the mayor doesn't want alleged victims to view City Hall as an ATM, but with nearly 500 misconduct-related cases still pending, the image is unavoidable, and more seven-figure payouts seem inevitable.

Chicago, sadly, is beating the competition in a race it doesn't want to win.

Los Angeles, which has a similar-sized police force, paid out $20 million in brutality-related legal claims last year, less than a quarter of Chicago's outlay.

The last time Chicago spent less than that was $18.5 million in 2005.

Philadelphia, with a force half the size of Chicago's, shelled out $9 million.

New York City's last available payout figure is $152 million, almost double last year's Chicago number, but its population and police force are three times as large.

Just to be clear, many brutality claims are fabricated, and most of Chicago's 12,500 cops do good work and never face misconduct charges, despite the violence they confront on a daily basis in too many neighborhoods.

But criminal justice experts say the department has deep-seated problems, including a tendency to circle the wagons and protect officers who misbehave, a reluctance to punish serial brutalizers, and a "code of silence" that encourages cops not to report rogue colleagues.

Until that culture changes, experts say, bad behavior will continue, and so will super-sized payments to victims and lawyers.

Silence may be golden in some places.

But when it enables police misconduct, it's intolerable, unaffordable and in desperate need of major reform.

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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It’s been more than three decades since one of Chicago’s most brutal murders.

On an August night in 1983, two men entered a West Rogers Park home through a window, murdered Dean Pueschel, and raped and murdered his wife, JoEllen Heinrich Pueschel.

Their 11-year-old son, Ricky, was stabbed, beaten with his own baseball bat, and left for dead. Amazingly, he survived.

Last year, the Pueschel and Heinrich families had to revisit the nightmare when the case against Jerry Mahaffey, one of the men convicted of the crime, was sent back to court by the state commission that reviews brutality allegations against former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge’s old homicide unit.

Mahaffey said he was beaten and forced to confess by Burge’s detectives, and the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission thought there was enough evidence of abuse to send the case back to court.

But the commission didn’t tell the Heinrich and Pueschel families about the Mahaffey hearing, so their first inkling came in a call from a reporter.

"That didn’t really sit too well with us," said Joe Heinrich, JoEllen’s brother. "The victims are always an afterthought in this state."

The Torture Commission was created by the Legislature in 2009 with the best of intentions: Review cases of inmates who may have been coerced by the Burge unit into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.

The law requires the commission to notify victims’ families when they’re revisiting old cases, but too often that doesn’t happen.

The Illinois Auditor General reports the commission didn’t notify families of upcoming hearings in 9 of the 15 cases they reviewed, and failed to tell any of them about the ensuing decisions.

That’s a problem.

Those families may not want to re-open old wounds — that’s their choice — but they deserve to be informed, not blindsided.

The Torture Commission’s new executive director, Barry Miller, is committed to "proper documentation and victim notification," a spokesman says, and that’s encouraging.

To that end, the commission pulled the Mahaffey case back from court to give it another look after the Heinrich and Pueschel families complained.

That was in January, and this time the families got to testify.

The commission hasn’t released its latest decision yet, but the case caught the attention of Illinois Sen. Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who is pushing legislation that would strengthen the commission’s obligation to notify victims’ families, and even give them a seat on the commission.

"It’s unfortunate we even have to do it, but since we do, we need to make sure everybody’s voices are heard," Radogno says.

Commission member Len Cavise, a DePaul University law professor, questions the value of adding a victims’ representative who might not understand the law.

"I don’t think the bill is a particularly positive addition," says Cavise.

No one condones police brutality, and we should do everything possible to overturn wrongful convictions coerced with excessive force.

But as lawmakers look at ways to improve the workings of the commission, it’s worth considering the addition of a victim’s family member.

In the end, a balanced, transparent process serves everyone fairly — the cops, the incarcerated, and the families of the victims — and that should be the goal of this commission.

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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