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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.

 

 

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.

rauner sun times quinn

One of television's hottest dramas is playing out daily right here in Illinois.

No, it's not "The Good Wife," "Shameless" or "Chicago Fire," and "Breaking Bad" isn't coming back with a Windy City setting.

I'm talking about the rock'em sock'em, neck-and-neck race for governor, starring Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, Republican nominee Bruce Rauner, and a deluge of attack ads they've been bombarding us and each other with for months.


General Election Governor Candidate Questionnaire

In an effort to shine a light on the major reform issues facing the next Governor of Illinois, the Better Government Association and Reboot Illinois asked candidates in the upcoming general election to respond to the 2014 BGA/Reboot Governor Candidate Questionnaire.


Curiously, the ads borrow heavily from the worlds of cartoons and literary fiction — genres where political campaigns don't typically get their broadcast ammunition.

In one TV spot the Rauner folks rechristen a Disney character, Pinocchio, as "Quinnochio" — a chronic liar with a string of broken promises about jobs, taxes and corruption.

Not to be outplayed in fantasyland, Quinn strategists borrow a page from Dickens by casting Rauner as a Scrooge-like misanthrope — a miserly tycoon who hides millions from tax collectors while calling for an end to the minimum wage.

It's must-see TV, at least the first couple airings — funny, smart and extremely entertaining — and it makes you laugh, cry and then, if you're running a good government watchdog organization, cry some more at the willful distortions of reality, and the abject failures to address serious policy issues.

Considering Illinois' monumental fiscal and ethical challenges, voters deserve honest answers to tough questions about what the candidates plan to do if they win on Nov. 4.

Some of that useful information should come out in series of candidate debates beginning this week. And we're doing our part to educate voters before the election.

The Better Government Association and another reform organization, Reboot Illinois, teamed up again to ask Quinn, Rauner and Libertarian nominee Chad Grimm a series of good government questions.

We partnered with Reboot to survey candidates for governor before the March primary, and now we're back with a new questionnaire that features six essay questions about their plans to tackle some of the key reform issues facing Illinois, including pensions, taxes, streamlining and ethics.

Many of the differences are stark, and worth paying attention to between the negative ads:

On taxes and spending, Rauner says cuts alone can't dig Illinois out of its financial hole, so he wants to gradually roll back the temporary income tax increase to 2010 levels, and replace some of the revenue by expanding the sales tax to include a variety of non-essential services.

Quinn denounces that approach, saying it would shift the tax burden to working families, leave a gaping hole in the state budget and provide billions less for schools.

He favors a permanent extension of the income tax before the phase out begins on Jan. 1, and hopes to round up enough legislative support to get it passed in the fall veto session that kicks off two weeks after the election.

Rauner is urging lawmakers to postpone any major decisions until the next governor and General Assembly are sworn in early next year.

On pension reform, Quinn remains confident the Supreme Court will uphold the legality of the partial fix approved last year, but he's pledging to work with lawmakers on a "Plan B" if the court finds it unconstitutional.

Rauner predicts a Supreme Court reversal, and says the answer is a new approach that protects benefits already earned by retirees and current employees, but implements a 401k-style plan going forward.

Quinn calls that too risky for state employees, and too expensive on the front end, but Rauner says the long-term savings are worth it.

On the ethics front, Rauner wants to attack conflicts of interest by banning outside income for legislative leaders, which amounts to a frontal assault on two Democratic powerhouses — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President

John Cullerton — who have lucrative law practices in addition to their elected positions.

Quinn is silent on that issue.

The most notable proposals from Grimm, the Libertarian candidate, are to eliminate pensions altogether, and de-criminalize minor offenses to reduce the cost of incarceration. He is also pledging to be Illinois' most transparent governor.
All three candidates agree on one thing: Illinois still has way too many units of local government, and an Rx for the bureaucratic bloat is a "smart streamlining" diet consisting of mergers, consolidations and phase-outs, which the BGA is also prescribing.

You can read all the candidate answers to our questionnaire, in their own words, at bettergov.org or rebootillinois.com.

It's a chance to get some valuable information before you decide which candidate is up to the daunting task of walking the state back from the edge of the fiscal and ethical cliff.

But no worries. If you're still craving more drama, a new round of creative attack ads is in production as we speak.

Who knows — we may see more fictional characters.

My granddaughters like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, so I'm wondering if the candidates are planning cameo roles in their new spots for those iconic toons?

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

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