One of the vexing dilemmas that confront full service watchdog organizations like the Better Government Association — where we investigate public officials, analyze public policy and then propose reform legislation — is that many of the people we criticize are also part of the legislative process that determines the outcome of our proposals.
It’s an occupational hazard that’s unavoidable, and sometimes it derails our initiatives when lawmakers we’ve called out decide the best payback is to kill one of our bills or water it down.
But more often, thankfully, our reform allies on city, county, suburban and state governing bodies stay the course, put the objections aside, and try to get the good government initiatives passed.
That’s what makes our watchdog work so rewarding.
All of this came to mind recently when I saw a quote in a news story from Susan Garrett, the former state senator from Lake Forest, who was one of the BGA’s most consistent reform allies in Springfield.
She was decrying the legislative loopholes, contingencies and special favors that allow some corrupt public officials convicted of crimes to maintain all or some of their government pensions.
Garrett says that anyone who is found guilty of public corruption at any level of government in Illinois should immediately lose their taxpayer-supported pension.
The BGA agrees.
For the record, Garrett gave up her Senate seat voluntarily last year to pursue other interests, but obviously she didn’t stray too far, and recently she re-entered the reform world through a new door as board chair of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, one of the BGA’s allies.
ICPR is the organization that, along with CHANGE Illinois, led the successful fight in 2009 to put the first financial limits on contributions to Illinois political campaigns.
Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case has thrown campaign finance laws up for grabs, ICPR’s longtime executive director, Cindi Canary, has moved on, and her iconic mentor, Dawn Clark Netsch, has passed away.
As a result, ICPR is retooling, with Garrett and another former North Suburban lawmaker, Beth Coulson, the board’s new vice chair, leading the charge.
Garrett and Coulson were among the state lawmakers who always understood that BGA criticism of their colleagues, and even them on occasion, and our focus on Springfield’s dystopian torpor, was intended to be instructive and constructive, not personal or vituperative.
Some of the other Springfield legislators who deserve a shout-out for working with us in the last session, even if they didn’t always agree with our watchdog ways, include:
- Sen. Mike Jacobs, who acknowledged the importance of public safety and government accountability by sponsoring bill to create a zero tolerance alcohol impairment policy for on-duty police officers;
- Sen. Dan Kotowski, who took on conflicts of interest by sponsoring a bill that tightened financial disclosure laws;
- Sen. Daniel Biss, who understood the need for accountability in the criminal justice system by sponsoring a bill requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant to use information collected by drones;
- And the coalition of legislators — Sen. Kwame Raoul, Reps. Mike Zalewski and Scott Drury, and House Speaker Michael Madigan — who recognized the high cost of wrongful convictions, in financial and human terms, is an atrocity that can no longer be tolerated.
They spearheaded passage of a criminal justice reform bill that requires electronic recording of interrogations in eight felony categories, not just homicide cases.
That’s a major reform.
In earlier sessions Rep. Fred Crespo led the fight to end the scandalized legislative scholarship program, Senate President John Cullerton supported measures that made it easier for residents to dissolve their antiquated townships, and Sens. Heather Steans and Pam Althoff took an interest in many of our reform initiatives.
They respected our jobs as watchdogs. And did their jobs as lawmakers.
That doesn’t eliminate the vexing clash of conflicting agendas, but it does say we can disagree without necessarily being disagreeable.
And that’s progress.