BGA Sets State Reform Agenda

<p>Preserving police records and protecting FOIA highlight the BGA’s legislative agenda.</p>

The Better Government Association has ramped up a reform agenda for the current state legislative session underway in Springfield.

As part of its efforts, the BGA policy team will work to advance several measures that will boost government accountability, efficiency and transparency:

Here is a synopsis of the BGA’s main state legislative priorities:  

Preserving police misconduct records

Among the BGA’s top legislative priorities is preserving police records—those related to complaints against officers and the investigations of those complaints—which appear to be in grave danger of being destroyed.

A pair of arbitrators have sided with Chicago police union officials pressing the City of Chicago to abide by union contract language calling for some of those records to be destroyed after five years. The courts have ruled that the public be given two weeks notice before any records are actually destroyed.

But destroying the records would be irresponsible, particularly at a time when the public is increasingly demanding greater transparency and accountability of law enforcement’s use of deadly force.

The BGA has shown that police misconduct lawsuits have cost Chicago taxpayers more than half a billion dollars over a ten-year span and that police misconduct allegations were the most prevalent factor in wrongful convictions, even more so than mistakes by prosecutors, eyewitnesses or the courts. Furthermore, the records, even dating back decades, remain relevant today.

For sure, police complaints alone are not clear-cut evidence of troubled officers, but they should not be dismissed. Some of the most notorious bad apples within the Chicago Police Department have had extensive records of civilian complaints over many years.

Destroying these records would rob the Chicago Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice and the public from determining patterns of police behavior that warrant greater scrutiny.

Requiring greater transparency of campus police

The BGA is partnering with other advocates to ensure that private campus police with sworn police powers are sharing the same information required of their public counterparts.

Police officers with the authority to detain, arrest and use deadly force—even those working at private universities—should be required to disclose information about the use of those powers and any complaints lodged against them.

Imposing such disclosure on private institutions is a delicate matter, but exercising police powers is clearly a public function that demands transparency.

Protecting and modernizing the Illinois Freedom of Information Act

The BGA is urging state lawmakers to establish a legislative subcommittee to consider any bills that would change the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

The FOIA has been under siege in recent years.

According to a BGA analysis, since the FOIA was revamped in 2010, the Illinois General Assembly has considered nearly 150 bills to change the law.  Most of those proposals—75 percent of them—would have diminished government transparency.

But lawmakers were far more likely to pass the bad FOIA bills than the good ones. Nearly 27 percent of the bad FOIA bills passed compared with just 6 percent of the bills that would have strengthened transparency.

Of the 32 FOIA bills that passed, 30 of them weakened FOIA, according to the BGA analysis. And lawmakers may not have been fully aware of the impact to transparency since most of those bad FOIA bills primarily focused on other subjects.

A FOIA subcommittee would ensure that lawmakers give careful deliberation to legislation that could weaken the most effective tool for taxpayers to monitor government and to hold government officials accountable for their actions.

Revamping statements of economic interest

Unlike FOIA, one state law in dire need of a facelift is the one requiring public officials to disclose information about their financial interests.

The statements of economic interest used in Illinois are relics of the past (some provisions are nearly 50 years old), and they no longer function in these more complicated times. In too many cases, public officials disclose very little information on the forms.

For years, the BGA has advocated for changing the forms, which can help uncover potential conflicts between the personal lives and public duties of government officials. The BGA is seeking to resuscitate attempts to simplify the forms so that government officials can more readily provide useful information for the public.

Also on the BGA’s legislative radar are initiatives promoting greater government efficiency, including:

Smart streamlining

Lawmakers are expected to consider several proposals that could ease the ways government officials and citizens can consolidate or dissolve units of government. In an effort to streamline bureaucracy and save taxpayer dollars, the BGA has long advocated for the consolidation or dissolution of government units proven to be unnecessary or duplicative.

Among the streamlining bills up for consideration include a measure that would allow all counties to seek voter approval to downsize smaller units of governments to which they appoint a majority of board members—powers currently held only by officials in DuPage County. There’s also a proposal that would make it easier to merge townships with other townships, counties or “coterminous” municipalities that share the same boundaries with townships.

Ending costly pension abuses

The BGA supports reforms that prevent non-government workers from joining public pension funds, discourage end-of-career raises that that can dramatically spike pension benefits and eliminate the use of unused sick or vacation time that can artificially sweeten pension payouts.

The legislature passed these provisions as part of the pension reform package that was ultimately struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court. If drafted in separate legislation and applied only to incoming government workers, these pension abuse reforms should withstand constitutional muster.

And while these reforms won’t resolve the state’s pension crisis, they would rid us of some of the most egregious abuses that help erode public trust and breed cynicism about the tens of thousands of government employees who work hard and deserve the modest pensions they receive.

Expanding the electorate

The BGA is supporting the efforts of voting rights advocates pushing for automatic voter registration, a move that could bring more voters into the electoral process while also modernizing functions to reduce costs.

In Illinois, there are about one and a half million unregistered eligible citizens. Changing the system to automatically add people to the voter rolls—and providing them a way to opt-out, if they so choose—makes it a lot easier for everyone to perform the most basic of civic duties. Regardless of party affiliation, we all win when everyone’s voices can be heard.

This is not a partisan issue.

No budget yet

Unfortunately, Illinois still doesn’t have a budget for the current fiscal year even as Gov. Rauner is scheduled next week to unveil next year’s budget plan.

A rational spending plan is the state’s most immediate pressing need, especially considering the pain the budget impasse has caused many in need of childcare, college grants and social services.

There’s also plenty of work needed to ensure that Illinois taxpayers have accountable, efficient and ethical government.

The BGA will continue to press for progress in Springfield on all of these very important fronts.