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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 City of Chicago, like a poorly trained dog, seems to be biting the hand that feeds it.

The hand, in this case, belongs to Don Levin, the wealthy owner of the Chicago Wolves professional hockey team.

He’s a generous benefactor to Animal Care and Control—ACC— the city agency that handles lost and abandoned pets and wildlife in Chicago.

ACC runs an aging pound on the Near Southwest Side, and Levin has donated more than $1 million to help with badly needed renovations aimed at making the facility more animal-friendly.

Levin and other animal lovers don’t just want a better physical structure—they’ve also spoken out about the need for changes in the ACC culture so there’s more professionalism and responsiveness, and fewer mistakes.

Unfortunately it’s been "mission impossible" up to now—more challenging than obedience training.

The latest snafu overshadowed a recent event at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

Levin’s Wolves were playing, and he allowed ACC to host an adoption event in the lobby, where a number of pound dogs were available for people to pet and interact with, and perhaps take home.

Why ACC went ahead with the event at a time of mounting concerns over dog flu is another question, but they did, and Wolves fans seemed to enjoy it.

A pooch named "Missy" didn’t.

The crowd apparently spooked her and she started acting squirrelly, so she was taken to the parking lot and loaded into an ACC van – also donated by Levin – to wait things out in a cage.

When the event was over, the van was driven back to the pound, but Missy was inexplicably left inside. And when the van was moved to a nearby city lot the next day, she was still locked in.

Missy languished for five or six days with little or no food or water before being discovered.

She’s recovering, thankfully, but where’s the "care" and "control" in the agency’s name?

Levin and many ACC employees and volunteers were understandably irate, so we asked to speak to Mayor Emanuel about the agency—not based on this one incident but because it’s the latest in a long series of mishaps that demonstrate ineptitude and waste, and an apparent lack of concern about tax dollars and the lives of living creatures.

This is the agency that accidentally euthanized an animal up for adoption, choked another dog, misleads us when we raise questions, and promotes administrators with little or no animal welfare experience, including an official who gave his own family dog up for adoption and had a lackluster employment history with another city agency before joining ACC.

We’ve been covering most of these mishaps, and here’s what I said in another column last year:

"A logical step is for the interested parties—experts, rescue groups, volunteers and government—to keep talking about better, more professional ways to do the job.

"The conversation should also include the city Inspector General’s office, which has been sharply critical of ACC over the years."

We don’t have all the answers, but together we can figure this out.

That includes the mayor, who declined our interview request, hockey owner and generous ACC donor Don Levin, and others who must be getting tired of donating their time and money, only to get nipped for their efforts.

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

The Better Government Association gets a lot of snarky phone calls, letters and emails from people who take exception to our investigations, policy decisions and public comments.

That’s OK—it goes with the territory.

We don’t expect to be loved when we carry out our watchdog mission: Shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.

It’s enough to be respected, and perhaps appreciated.

Sometimes we are, sometimes we’re not.

The latest "not" comes from the new Rauner administration—-details in a moment, after a little background:

In 2013, House Speaker Michael Madigan, who’s also the Illinois Democratic chairman, sent a letter to party leaders accusing the BGA of supporting his political opponents.

We reminded Madigan the BGA is an apolitical, nonpartisan watchdog that’s been barking at Republicans and Democrats for nearly a century.

That same year, CTA boss Forrest Claypool, who’s now Mayor Emanuel’s chief of staff, sent us a nasty email after a BGA investigation raised questions about his new plan for train station security.

We reminded him it’s our job to encourage a healthy discussion of major policy changes.

And last fall, then-Governor Pat Quinn rejected our participation in a TV debate with challenger Bruce Rauner because Rauner was a BGA donor before becoming a candidate.

That’s ironic, because the latest pushback comes from now-Governor Rauner’s communications deputy, Mike Schrimpf, who answered my email request to interview his boss this way:

"We aren't going to do this while your organization continues fishing expeditions into individuals who work for the administration. This randomly trying to dig up dirt on people is sickening."

The "dirt" apparently refers to some of our document requests, and these BGA stories about the new administration’s appointments and associates:

The stories expose potential conflicts the public should know about and the Rauner administration should care about.

That’s not "dirt"—it’s the road to "better government" and the goal of our investigations.

It’s also what motivates our Policy Unit, which advocates for reform around the state.

We’ve been evaluating Rauner’s "Turnaround Agenda" and we’re glad it includes one of our top priorities— "smart streamlining"— the elimination of unnecessary units of government.

We’d like to work with the new administration on that and other reforms, like we do with City Hall in Chicago.

Our policy team is collaborating with Emanuel’s aides on a privatization ordinance, even as our investigators expose shortcomings in departments and agencies under his control, including a lack of transparency.

It can be uncomfortable to do both at the same time, but that’s our mission, so we’re still hoping the governor finds time to update us on the progress of his reform agenda.

It’s a natural follow up to a BGA luncheon in Springfield in December, where Rauner talked about the importance of watchdog organizations like ours.

So Mr. Schrimpf: Let’s agree to disagree, without being excessively disagreeable, so we can join forces, when it makes sense, to fight for the good government we all care so much about.

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

I’m not a big R&B fan, but as a good government watchdog I have to appreciate the O’Jays `74 classic, "For the Love of Money," about the dangers of pursuing "the almighty dollar."

The song could serve as an anthem for the sorry state of campaign finance today because money is still the driving force in our politics.

As the O’Jays crooned, "some people got to have it … some people really need it."

And some campaigns definitely get it, in copious amounts, thanks to Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 decision opening the floodgates to virtually unlimited political expenditures by corporations, unions, nonprofits and others.

Here in Illinois, the contribution limits reformers fought so hard for have been circumvented in every major election since their adoption six years ago.

The landscape has indeed changed, so reform efforts have to change too if we’re ever going to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics.

One new battleground is the fight for more disclosure, so at least we can "follow the money," according to a panel of experts who enlightened us recently at "Standing Up to Special Interests," a forum sponsored by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

My takeaway: There’s a lot of disclosure, but not enough.

On the federal level, the most glaring deficiency is that politically active nonprofits don’t have to reveal their donors. This so-called "dark money" exceeded $400 million in the 2012 Presidential election.

That lack of transparency has to end.

Illinois has its own blind spots: In some cases we have to wait months— often until after an election—to get independent expenditure details for a campaign season.

Legislation authored by ICPR would require spending reports within days.

It should pass, and Governor Rauner should sign it.

Panelists at the ICPR forum also lamented the failure of election officials to adequately enforce disclosure laws.

That has to change.

And even disclosures can be opaque: Individual contributions are logged but not individual contributors, making it hard to establish patterns.

One solution: Give every donor an ID number that accompanies every contribution so it’s easier to identify and aggregate individual giving.

"But disclosure by itself is not enough," says ICPR executive director David Melton.

He’s also pushing public financing coupled with voluntary spending limits. The model program is New York City, where a pot of public money is used to match small individual donations.

In a February advisory referendum, Chicago voters supported small-donor matching programs, and now ICPR and Common Cause Illinois are exploring pilot programs in the city and a few suburbs.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court equated political money with free speech. Carrying the analogy a step further, small-donor matching programs can lift the voices of everyday people so they’re not drowned out by special interests.

Sadly, big money will continue to be the loudest voice in our elections unless Supreme Court turnover creates a new majority, or there’s a constitutional amendment overriding the Citizens United decision.

Neither is imminent, so let’s fight now for what’s realistic: More disclosure, better enforcement and public financing initiatives.

German statesman Otto von Bismarck put it this way more than a century ago: "Politics is the art of the possible."

That’s just as true today.


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

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