BGA's Leven: How To Keep Chicago's Sewage District Clean of Corruption
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which manages the Chicago area’s wastewater system, long has suffered from accusations of corruption and patronage.
A former police officer for the district, Dennis Lawler, seemed to give legitimacy to those accusations in 2015 when he bragged over a police radio about sleeping and drinking on the job. He reminded a new officer that anyone working in the district got their job through powerful connections.
While Lawlor audaciously continues to fight his dismissal in circuit court, MWRD officials have tried to learn from the scandal and move on.
Two weeks ago, the district’s board of commissioners discussed, for the first time, the creation of the position of inspector general, which would be a historic move toward oversight and transparency. The MWRD has about 2,000 employees and a budget of more than $1.2 billion. It’s a government bigger than that of many cities and towns in Illinois. For an agency of this size and importance, setting up independent oversight should be a no-brainer.
The MWRD has made improvements over the years to its wastewater treatment, water that makes its way into the Chicago River. At the same time, however, the district has blown millions of dollars on a single property dispute — who gets to use an alley outside its offices — and pays its employees among the highest average salaries of all public agencies in Illinois.
Better oversight of the agency is not just a no-brainer — it’s an environmental and fiduciary imperative.
Inspectors general are not just about calling out wrongdoers; misconduct, in fact, is often only a symptom of a wider problem. An IG’s job is also to uncover and recommend ways to fix that wider problem.
Many years ago, the City of Chicago’s IG office found that an employee named Antionette Chenier had, over a number of years, embezzled hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. Chenier was fired and eventually pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. That could have been the end of it, but the IG went further, helping the city to reform its weak billing and cash-management systems so that similar fraud could not happen again.
IGs fight corruption and save money. In the course of 12 months, the Chicago IG identified an estimated $7 million in missed revenue or potential savings as a result of performance management audits and reviews unconnected to investigations.
If the MWRD is going to create an inspector general’s office, it should be done right.
The inspector general must be independent, legally empowered and adequately funded. An independent IG, for example, cannot be removed without cause, at the whim of the district. A legally empowered IG has independent subpoena power and is able to do what it needs to do — whether an investigation, audit or review — and go where it needs to go, across the district. An adequately funded IG has a professional staff with control of their own technology and a guaranteed minimum budget.
Without these three elements, the office will not have credibility with the public or its own employees. The Chicago City Council tried this more limited approach recently when it created a shackled Legislative Office of Inspector General. Instead of settling into soft oversight, aldermen had to call a do-over and move to a fully empowered investigative inspector general.
The Better Government Association encourages the MWRD’s board of commissioners to show the public that the district is committed to efficiency and accountability.
This op-ed was published with the Chicago Sun-Times.