Every holiday has its unique rituals and traditions.
Some celebrate religious days, others mark historical events, several memorialize our nation’s founders and protectors, one welcomes a jolly fat man in a red suit, another a bunny with a basket, and finally, at the end of the year, we turn the page.
New Year is my favorite because it’s about turning the page—looking back at ups and downs of the just-completed year and hoping there’ve been more of the former than the latter—and looking ahead at a new, pristine calendar, its empty pages filled with endless possibilities and, of course, unavoidable pitfalls.
At an anti-corruption watchdog organization like the Better Government Association, where we shine a light on public officials and hold them accountable, we measure the past year by looking at our investigations and transparency lawsuits, their impact, and civic engagement—our ongoing efforts to inform and educate regular citizens.
We conducted 122 investigations in 2015. These are some of our top ones:
- Chicago police shot and killed 70 people over a five-year period, most of any American big city.
- Illinois’ largest pension funds sent thousands of retirement checks to dead people.
- Bureaucracy ballooned at City Colleges of Chicago, even as enrollment declined and tuition went up.
- The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which is supposed to protect our water supply, leased land to polluters, including an oil company with a history of chemical spills.
We can also point to 19 reforms or tangible results from our investigations and policy initiatives. Here are a few:
- City Council passing a privatization ordinance the BGA helped draft.
- Federal authorities launching a probe after the BGA and FOX 32 reported on a questionable land deal involving Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, her husband and a campaign donor.
- Chicago Public Schools revising graduation rates after the BGA and WBEZ disclosed inflated claims.
- A suburban school district treasurer sent to prison on charges sparked by a BGA investigation of alleged embezzlement.
- A Chicago-area casino hit with a $2 million fine after the BGA raised questions about one of its contractors.
On the transparency front we filed a dozen lawsuits against government offices that stonewalled our document requests, including the Emanuel and Rauner administrations. We’re now getting many of the records we asked for.
The BGA also hosted monthly civic engagement activities, including:
- Idea Forums on redistricting, the state budget crisis, charter schools, the Freedom of Information Act and municipal bankruptcy.
- Citizen Watchdog Training sessions and FOIA clinics.
- Candid Conversations with mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Finally, we had the privilege of contributing weekly columns on good government issues to the Sun-Times, and weekly commentary on radio and television stations in Chicago and Springfield.
As Sinatra sang, “It was a very good year.”
Regrets? We’ve had a few.
–Failing, along with everyone else, to cajole state lawmakers and the governor to compromise on spending, taxes and reforms.
–Not pushing city officials aggressively enough to confront their troubled police department before the Laquan McDonald tragedy forced the issue.
–Not convincing more government officials to put the public interest ahead of self-interest.
But it’s a new year. And we’re on it. Because good government is what you deserve in exchange for your hard-earned tax dollars, and good government is our mission.
So from all of us at the BGA to all of you readers, supporters and occasional detractors: Have a Happy and Healthy New Year.
We’ve turned the page.