Our BGA/CBS 2 investigation of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ questionable expenditures, budget chicanery and lack of transparency sparked a ton of reaction, ranging from taxpayer outrage to shrugs of “so what else is new?” to a vigorous defense of the treasurer’s overall stewardship of an office that’s historically been a cesspool of waste, inefficiency and corruption. Nothing encapsulates the debate more poignantly and succinctly than my brief email exchange with Allan Mellis, a former County employee from Lincoln Park who’s a close observer of the local political scene. So I want to share it:

MELLIS: “I just saw the story about Maria Pappas and while the allegations may show some misuse of taxpayer dollars, her transformation of the office of treasurer should be a case study for the BGA on how to take an office that was completely inefficient to one of the most efficient offices in the county if not the state. I remember sending in my tax bill when Eddie Rosewell was treasurer and wondering why my check had not been cashed for three to four weeks. With Maria Pappas my check has CLEARED MY BANK in three days. She has brought the office into the 21st century and has generated significantly more revenue with significantly fewer employees. I would appreciate your opinion of her improvement of the Treasurer’s Office.”

SHAW: “Thanks for the feedback Allan. I don’t disagree with anything you said about office improvements under Maria, but our three stories with CBS 2 reveal misleading budgeting, a lack of transparency and questionable expenditures of tax dollars. That doesn’t negate her accomplishments, but her accomplishments don’t excuse those transgressions.”

The point here is that nothing in the world of investigations, civic engagement or public policy advocacy is black and white or cut and dry. It’s all laced with shades of gray and nuance. Unfortunately the subtle distinctions are frequently lost in or overshadowed by the basic facts of the story. So history may judge Maria Pappas much differently than the court of public opinion that follows our investigations. The same is true of any public official who is scrutinized by the news media and watchdog organizations.

We at the BGA are watching. We’re shining a light on government, and that will continue with what I hope is an increasing scope and impact. Better government is a right and a responsibility. And if we do our jobs smartly, aggressively and creatively—with the help of an engaged citizenry—it can become a reality. Illinois has thousands of dedicated public servants who do their jobs honestly and efficiently. Maria Pappas may be one of them in most ways. But when she, or any other public official, treats our hard-earned tax dollars like its their money—through waste, fraud, inefficiency, nepotism, cronyism or patronage—we will call them out and tell them it is not OK. It’s simply not tolerable. I look forward to pursuing our mission with your support—whether it’s tips, insights, thoughts, suggestions, criticism or contributions. They’re all the lifeblood of a non-profit. Meanwhile, thanks for caring about better government.