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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.

 

 

One of our jobs at the Better Government Association is to look for warning signs that suggest trouble may be on the way.

And with that in mind, I point to a recent BGA investigation that sounds the alarm at a number of Chicago-area fire departments, but not because there's an actual blaze.

This alert is sparked by a growing and potentially troubling trend in emergency service that requires victims of car accidents to help fill municipal budget holes.

It's known as a "crash tax," and it's quietly showing up in more and more communities as fire departments struggle to make ends meet.

The BGA found at least fifteen Cook County suburbs that are now billing non-residents after providing emergency responses to their accidents.


READ MORE: Cash Grab

More victims of car accidents may have to foot the bill for first responders as so-called "crash tax" gains popularity with local fire departments.


That means if you get into a car crash, you might be charged for the fire crew that comes to help, even if the accident is minor or not your fault.

Some departments charge an hourly rate — anywhere from $250 to $400 for each engine that responds, and $35 to $75 per firefighter — while others charge flat fees ranging from $435 to $2,200, depending on the situation.

It could be a major accident with people seriously injured or trapped inside a car, or routine work like directing traffic, cleaning up debris or simply waiting for a tow truck to arrive.

These services have typically been free to the recipients and covered by local property taxes in the responding municipality.

But towns and villages are scouring the landscape for resources these days, and that means sending out bills for first responders.

The concept is to recoup some of the costs of running a fire department by collecting money from the auto insurance companies that provide coverage to accident victims.

But what if the driver doesn't have insurance, or the claim is denied? In some cases, unpaid bills end up with a collection agency, which is what happened to Daryl Jenkins Jr. of west suburban Berkeley.

He was hit with a bill last year after a small fire broke out under the hood of his SUV, and his brother, who was driving the vehicle at the time, called 911 for help.

The Broadview Fire Department arrived and doused the flame within 11 minutes, according to the incident report.

But Jenkins was charged for one engine on the scene, at a rate of $250 per hour, and four responders, at $35 each, for a total of $390.

He was shocked to see the tab, and he probably has a lot of company — drivers who get caught up in similar situations.

The Broadview Fire Department contends that non-residents don't pay the village's property taxes, so drivers from out of town can't expect free emergency service.

Other agencies make the same argument, even though the fees bring in just a fraction of what it costs to run a department.

It's true that fire stations are expensive operations, and we're not trying to tell first responders how to do their jobs.

But this practice raises several concerns:

  • It borders on predatory to target those who've suffered the pain or trauma of an accident, and those who can't afford to pay the fees, by unleashing collection agencies on them.
  • It can easily be abused if fire departments send out more trucks, equipment and manpower than necessary to pad the bills.
  • It's arbitrary — that is, dependent on the decisions of insurance companies to reimburse or deny the claims.

We certainly understand the need for new and creative revenue streams to keep property taxes from skyrocketing out of control.

But if more fire departments are going to be charging for emergency services, let's build in safeguards that protect the victims of car accidents from being jolted a second time by an unexpected bill.

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

city council BGAphoto600x450

The Emanuel administration apparently made enough progress in wringing illegal politics out of hiring, firing and promotions at City Hall to finally shed the yoke of a court-appointed monitor who's been policing personnel decisions for the past decade.

Ending the federally mandated oversight, which cost Chicago taxpayers more than $20 million in legal fees and compensation for victims of the rigged employment system, is a significant reform.

And it also includes the administration's adherence to a "do-not-hire" list of former public employees declared ineligible for city jobs because they were fired or forced to resign from other branches of government for alleged misconduct or corruption.

But leave it to a few Chicago aldermen to rain on the mayor's reform parade by initially balking at the monitor's request that they follow the same "do-not-hire" list when they're filling City Council jobs.

Some aldermen called the criticism unfair, claiming they were never asked to comply.

Others said they were open to going along with the constraint, but wanted to know more about how it worked first.

And a few were miffed by the suggestion they were missing a golden opportunity to embrace a valuable reform as they ramp up their re-election campaigns.

Grumbling aside, this dust-up was just another reminder that too many aldermen still aren't taking their ethics medicine.

And it invites another conversation about whether it's time to shrink the size of the 50-member council, which — on a per capita basis — is the largest and most expensive big-city legislative body in the country.

Collectively, Chicago's aldermen continue to put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

And, like most serial offenders, their track record is extensive:

  • Since 1973, more than 30 council members have been convicted of corruption and sent to prison.
  • Over the same period they've been little more than a rubber stamp for a succession of mayors.
  • And even when a handful of progressives argue successfully for reform, the results are usually watered down by an "old guard" that still controls the council.

For instance, an enlightened proposal aimed at preventing privatization fiascoes like the abominable parking meter deal has been languishing in a council committee for almost two years.

And when, under intense public pressure, aldermen grudgingly accepted the need for a legislative inspector general, they refused to provide the office with enough resources or authority to be an effective watchdog.

Recently, some council members have been angling to staff their offices and committees with more political hires, which is consistent with their tone deaf history of padding payrolls with friends, relatives and cronies.

A few council members have even been grumbling about losing a budget "slush fund" they've used over the years to underwrite the payroll padding.

But maybe the mayor's personnel reforms, and pressure from watchdog groups, is starting to have an impact, because — miracle of miracles — there's actually been an epiphany of sorts when it comes to the contentious do-not-hire list:

At least 43 aldermen recently sponsored a non-binding resolution committing them to abide by the list, and the mayor's legislative floor leader, Ald. Patrick O'Connor, wants to make it binding.

If the council goes along with O'Connor's proposal, that would be a step in the right direction.

But just a single step down a long road toward the kind of ethics reform the council needs and taxpayers deserve.

The kind of reform they've sidestepped numerous times over the past few decades.

The kind of reform that could tamp down the periodic clamor for a smaller, less expensive, more accountable City Council than the unwieldy, unethical legislative body we've been saddled with for decades.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel set the right tone by reforming personnel policies effectively enough to satisfy a federal judge and most good government advocates.

So if "better government" really is in the air at City Hall, let's hope a stiff Chicago lake breeze blows it into the City Council chamber and the aldermanic offices.

Then we'll close the windows so it fills every nook and cranny, and every alderman's been forced to inhale a lungful.

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

You've seen it before — riveting images of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding citizens so angry they're not going to take it anymore.

It's been a movie and TV staple for decades, from Frankenstein to The Simpsons.

And it came to mind recently when we heard a civic variation on the vigilante theme playing out at a public meeting in Clark County, 80 miles southeast of Champaign.

No torches or pitchforks — they're obviously passé — but something equally outré: An entire public board placed under citizen's arrest.

It really happened, as we recounted on an NBC 5 newscast last month, and local law enforcement actually sided with the guy who made the pinch.

The confrontation occurred in May, after 30 people showed up at a park district meeting, hoping to question board members about recent controversies.

They never got an opportunity to vent because the board spent 2 1/2 hours in closed session before adjourning without allowing public comment.

That's not just an insult to the citizens who waited patiently for a chance to seek redress for their grievances — it's against the law.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act, or OMA, specifically guarantees our right to speak at public meetings.

So the co-founder of a local watchdog group stood up, pulled a printout of the citizen's arrest statute from his wallet, and — with a camera rolling — placed the entire board under citizen's arrest.

Board members were stunned by the brazen act, and even more so when the sheriff arrived to sort out the mess and sided with the crowd — agreeing board members had violated the law by not allowing public comment.

We're not recommending this hardball tactic in every situation; it could easily get out in hand in situations more heated than Clark County's that night.

But candidly, it's encouraging to see resolute citizen watchdogs who regularly monitor deliberations and votes at public meetings utilizing creative tools to win the right to participate.

Ironically, it turns out all seven Clark County park board members had taken required Open Meetings Act training through the Illinois attorney general's office, so they can't say they didn't know the drill.

Unfortunately, their violation is part of a widespread problem in Illinois — not an isolated incident — according to the AG's office, which fielded nearly 400 OMA complaints last year, and settled many of them by retraining the offending officials.

As for the Clark County insurrection, it's probably safe to infer that if 30 people showed up to praise the board that night, they would have been allowed to comment.

And we're guessing those members stayed in their closed session longer than necessary, hoping the agitated residents would get tired and go home.

It wouldn't be the first time we've seen recalcitrant boards try to run out the clock.

Clearly, Clark County residents didn't like the job the board was doing, and board members flat-out didn't want to hear it.

But that's too bad, and no excuse for their illegal behavior. The OMA is not about their hurt feelings — it's about our unequivocal access to them because they control our tax dollars and have to be held accountable.

By the way, the Clark County dust-up has a happy ending: The park board recently adopted a new policy guaranteeing up to 30 minutes of public comment at every meeting, with a max of five minutes per speaker.

That's fair, and it's the right thing to do.

It shouldn't take a modern-day version of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks storming Frankenstein's castle to get there.

But the citizen's arrest was sure fun to watch.

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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Investigations

July 9, 2014

Katie Drews/BGA, with NBC 5

Crash Grab

July 1, 2014

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IDOT Secretary Resigns After BGA Investigations

June 25, 2014

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You're Under Arrest…

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