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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.



State Senator Heather Steans has a tongue-in-cheek plan for ending the stalemate between her Democratic colleagues and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner over taxes, spending and pro-business reforms:

Lock a handful of thoughtful and reasonable lawmakers from both parties in a room for 24 hours and let them hammer out a compromise.

"It’s not rocket science," she points out.

Her comments came at a recent luncheon hosted by our friends and allies at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonprofit organization that invited half a dozen current and former state officials with good government credentials to share their "vision for Illinois"—a vision invariably clouded by an epidemic of unbalanced budgets and underfunded pension plans around the state.

Steans, whose Chicago district winds through several neighborhoods on the North Lakefront, relied on levity again when she encouraged public officials facing fiscal nightmares to follow the advice of a fictitious financial planner in a "Saturday Night Live" skit:

"Don’t buy stuff you cannot afford."

Or, in "government-speak," don’t hire new workers, increase employee compensation and benefits, and expand programs and services, unless you have enough revenue to cover the costs.

The City of Chicago, its Board of Education, the State of Illinois, and dozens of smaller municipalities, school districts and branches of government around the state wantonly ignored that admonition, so here we are.

Another speaker at the ICPR luncheon was Steans’ Senate colleague Matt Murphy, a Northwest Suburban Republican who stressed the importance of improving the state’s economic health by adopting parts of Rauner’s "turnaround agenda."

‘’Things have to change," Murphy says.

An important long-term change, according to moderate Republican Corinne Wood, a former lieutenant governor, is to attract more good government candidates, give voters better choices, and make Illinois House and Senate races more competitive, by taking the power to establish legislative district boundaries, and the gerrymandering it invites, out of the hands of the politicians.

The state’s former executive inspector general, Ricardo Meza, says government would be more honest, efficient and transparent if lawmakers had a clearer understanding of what ethical behavior requires, faced stiffer consequences for lapses, and served in the public interest instead of self-interest.

State Senator Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat and a leader in the fight for pension reform, says serious negotiations with public employee unions, and some voluntary concessions, can go along way toward a solution that passes legal muster.

"We need to get real," Biss adds.

Biss’s Democratic colleague, Senator Kwame Raoul, who represents President Obama’s old South Side district, laments the state’s shabby treatment of Illinois’ most vulnerable residents—many of them Black and Latino—by, among other things, mishandling too many law enforcement and criminal justice issues.

He says it was unfair to cancel anti-violence grants in low-income neighborhoods simply because they were poorly administrated by community groups that lacked the necessary staffing and expertise.

Raoul notes that, "even the Red Cross has imperfections."

You may have noticed the luncheon participants aren’t exactly household names—no Madigans, Cullertons or Rauners among them.

But they offer up good ideas, sincere sentiments and, perhaps most encouraging, commitments to bipartisan cooperation.

It makes me think we’d see more progress in Springfield on the big issues if the leaders whose names we do recognize would start listening to their lesser-known rank-and-file colleagues, starting with the speakers at the ICPR luncheon.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.

It took more than a year of complaints from Chicago neighborhood groups representing thousands of taxpayers, a tough re-election campaign, a Springfield intervention, and even pleas from members of Congress, before the Emanuel administration agreed to hear grievances from homeowners concerned about excessive jet noise from O’Hare Airport.

And after all that, the mayor isn’t even sitting down with concerned citizens himself—he’s sending surrogates from the city’s Department of Aviation, according to a recent Better Government Association story.

Why in the world didn’t City Hall reach out to the impacted communities earlier? And why did it take Springfield to finally get City Hall to act?

The mayor admitted in a memorable campaign ad that, "I can rub people the wrong way or talk when I should listen."

Well mayor, it’s time to listen.

Everyone appreciates the value of O’Hare as an economic engine for the Chicago area, but the noise issue is making a lot of North Side residents miserable, and they worry about the economic impact on them personally if their homes lose value because of jet noise.

How bad is it?

  • One resident reports an 18 percent drop in the assessment of his North Side home, and now the Cook County Assessor is studying whether jet noise is adversely affecting home prices.
  • A newly elected alderman worries about a mass exodus from his ward to escape the nuisance.
  • North Siders report that hundreds of planes buzz over their homes every day, almost twice as many as two years ago.
  • Much of this is attributable to the opening of a new east-west runway in 2013, and some residents fear additional noise when another east-west runway is completed in October.

It’s a serious issue, and Emanuel owes his constituents the courtesy of at least personally hearing them out on this very important matter.

Admittedly, it’s a complex issue involving many parties: City Hall, the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines and, of course, the affected homeowners.

Plans for the O’Hare Modernization Project go back almost 15 years to the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, so airport noise is another troubling issue passed down to Emanuel from his predecessor, along with the parking meter privatization fiasco, the pension crisis and the financial mess.

But it’s not good government to shut people out, especially those who choose to live in the city, pay their taxes and, in many cases, provide some of our most important public services.

The mayor’s office says Emanuel will talk to political leaders and federal aviation officials, and is "sensitive" to residents’ concerns, but no face-to-face meetings have been scheduled.

That, unfortunately, rekindles the perception that dogged Emanuel during the 2012 firestorm over school closings on the South and West Sides: That he’s insensitive to the people who live in the city’s outlying neighborhoods.

Ginger Evans, the city’s new Aviation commissioner, promises to study noise reduction proposals and listen carefully at several public hearings, and that’s good.

The mayor should attend at least one of those hearings if he wants his pledge to be a better listener to be taken seriously, and not dismissed as cynical campaign rhetoric.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.

Most of the Springfield news this year features new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s pitched battle with veteran Democrats over taxes, spending, pensions and a "turnaround agenda" designed, the governor says, to save Illinois from fiscal ruin, limit the power of public employee unions and improve the business climate.

There’s no agreement on any of those contentious issues yet, so the spring legislative session has lapsed into overtime, and it’s hard to predict when and how it’ll end.

Thankfully, the standoff didn’t poison the entire well, so lawmakers were able to address a number of issues on our Better Government Association reform agenda.

A top priority was to protect the Freedom of Information Act—the most important tool for watchdogs and regular citizens to keep an eye on government—so we vigorously opposed a bill that would have diluted FOIA by letting public officials hide details of their contract negotiations for events at taxpayer-supported entertainment venues.

"Following the money" is a key to preventing sweetheart deals that benefit connected insiders, so it’s heartening our "call to action" prompted hundreds of emails from constituents to their elected representatives, effectively halting the bill’s legislative progress.

Thank you.

We also appreciate House and Senate approval of a number of reforms in key areas, including:

  • Transparency. One measure mandates more timely reporting of independent expenditures by groups involved in political campaigns, and another requires organizations that want to start charter schools to disclose ongoing investigations of their operations or board members.
  • Accountability. Lawmakers gave individuals more time to ask the Attorney General to review possible violations of the Open Meetings Act, and authorized the Secretary of State to accept online submissions of ethics statements from state officials, so it’ll be easer flag potential conflicts.
  • Efficiency. The legislature continued its baby steps toward reducing Illinois’ unnecessary units of government by facilitating the elimination of a suburban Cook County sanitary district, a DuPage County fair and exposition authority, and a Downstate township that shares boundaries with a municipality. They also imposed a four-year moratorium on the creation of any new units.
  • Civic Engagement. Lawmakers approved a bill requiring one semester of civics education in high school. Bravo!
  • Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement. The legislature ended the automatic transfer of some juvenile offenders to adult court, which gives judges and prosecutors more discretion; and approved a sweeping police accountability bill that prohibits chokeholds, requires more training, expands crime reporting and data on stop-and-frisk searches, facilitates tracking officers with histories of disciplinary problems, and requires two independent investigations when cops shoot and kill civilians.

The BGA backed some additional good government initiatives that didn’t make it across the finish line, so we’ll keep pushing them.

Meantime, a shout out to lawmakers who helped us block bad bills and enact good ones while their leaders were facing off on the high-visibility issues.

That’s progress—slow but steady—and we look forward to the governor’s signature on the reform measures.

The challenge now for Rauner and the Democrats is to find common ground on the polarizing budget and "turnaround" issues still on the table before there’s an impasse that shuts down state government and severly impacts the rest of Illinois.

Resolving that conundrum would be even more progress.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.


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