When I joined the Better Government Association in 2009, the venerable watchdog organization was still shining most of its light on the public officials in charge of Chicago and Cook County, where decades of government corruption turned those geographic entities into caricatures with ignominious monikers like “Clout City” and “Crook County.”
City and county administrations have taken significant steps to shed those pejorative labels in recent years, and that’s commendable, but they still need to be closely watched, and we’re on it.
But waste, fraud and misconduct don’t stop at the doors of City Hall and the County Building, so we’ve been allocating increasingly more time and resources to the challenge of holding government officials accountable in the suburbs and collar counties, where bad behavior is still flourishing, in part because not enough people are watching.
Consider this: Since July, the BGA has printed or aired nearly 40 investigations, and almost half of them revealed suburban officials engaged in nepotism, financial chicanery, dubious campaign spending and outright corruption.
This isn’t breaking news. When Dick Simpson, the former Chicago alderman turned UIC political science professor, researched suburban corruption in 2012, he catalogued 140 convictions of wayward public officials since the early ’70s in suburbs stretching from Antioch, near the Wisconsin border, to Braidwood in southwest suburban Will County, and multiple offenders in infamous dens of iniquity in between, including Cicero, Chicago Heights and Melrose Park.
The sad reality is that suburban news outlets, civic gadflies and watchdog groups don’t have enough manpower to adequately monitor the hundreds of public agencies that spend billions of tax dollars in the suburbs.
And many of the communities that need internal watchdogs the most lack the resources to staff a fulltime inspector general’s office.
That’s one reason Simpson followed up on his report by suggesting the creation of an inspector general’s office to watch over the suburbs. The idea got a cool reception at the time from public officials who weren’t eager to face IG scrutiny, but last year Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart revived the concept by offering the services of his newly-created Inspector General unit to the 140 cities, towns and villages in suburban Cook.
So far, only six suburbs have taken him up on the offer by entering into IG agreements, but it’s a start.
And the village board in south suburban Harvey took a major good government step last week by asking Dart’s team to investigate alleged misconduct in its police department, despite Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg’s strong opposition to a sheriff’s posse riding into their town.
Having an inspector general doesn’t automatically eliminate corruption, as a recent BGA investigation of IG offices within the city of Chicago revealed. Many have limited scope, authority and resources, but they’ve still nabbed thieves red-handed and identified internal control flaws that put taxpayer dollars at risk.
And sometimes the mere presence of an IG can serve as a deterrent for wayward public officials, and a beacon of hope for citizens who’ve lost faith in their government, according to Dart spokeswoman Cara Smith.
“Many of these communities … they can’t recover without significant resources from the county or the state,” Smith said. “When mismanagement impacts people’s lives, we’ve got to take that seriously.”
She’s right, but the Cook County Board has refused to give Dart the authority to send his IG team, uninvited, into suburbs with a history of fiscal and ethical missteps, and the state legislature hasn’t addressed the issue yet.
So until there’s agreement on the best approach — and right after the election is a good time for the stakeholders to start hammering one out — more suburbs should follow Harvey’s lead by enlisting Dart’s clean-up crew, even if their mayors don’t like the smell of disinfectant.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.