Leven: The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Needs an Inspector General Now

The BGA's Policy Team says it's time for the government branch that cleans our water to embrace accountability.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), the $1.2 billion organization that manages Cook County’s sewage water,  is at a crossroads. Nearly two years after its board began a conversation about bringing independent accountability to the district, there is finally an agreement creating a system of oversight under an Inspector General (IG) on its way to commissioners.

The board should let the public view this agreement and ensure that it follows best practices for creating independent oversight. Will Fletcher, Chicago Park District IG and President of the Illinois chapter of the Association of Inspectors General says, “It’s critical that the [agreement] gives the inspector general the independence and resources required to provide effective oversight and promote efficiency. The term of the agreement must also anticipate the time required for an IG to get started and become familiar with the agency’s processes, and should allow for the inspector general’s removal only for cause.”  

Once a strong agreement consistent with such best practices is secured, it should be approved.  The MWRD needs IG oversight now.

Examples of questionable practices and an overall lack of independent review keep piling up. The district blew millions on a dispute over who got to use an alley outside its offices and pays its employees among the highest average salaries of all public agencies in Illinois. A former district employee is on tape bragging about sleeping and drinking on the job. Last year, Executive Director David St. Pierre resigned following an investigation that the board has not made public.

Commissioners studied and discussed the question of how to create independent oversight for eight months before they finally voted, unanimously, to place the MWRD under the jurisdiction of the Cook County IG. That vote was in May of 2018.  During last week’s public board meeting, MWRD staff reported that they expect to receive the draft agreement from Cook County any day. It appears as if the agreement will soon be ready for the MWRD board to review.

As Commissioner Josina Morita noted during the meeting, it’s been a long road. But, it’s one that the MWRD must continue to follow. Some commissioners have suggested that the MWRD should have its own independent oversight office. However, the board would need to change state law in order to create its own truly independent IG.

Vice President Barbara McGowan also suggested, last week, that the board explore acquiring an IG through the MWRD contracting process. It’s unclear how such a contracting process would guarantee accountability. The Cook County IG was appointed to a six-year term after a screening process that was administered by the Chicago and Cook County Bar Associations and a bipartisan committee of the Board of Commissioners of Cook County. The law requires that the county follow a similar process in the future. On the other hand, the MWRD’s contract process is staff run and board approved. In addition, a contracted IG would lack subpoena powers. This does not make for an independent selection or an independent office.

What the board should absolutely not do, is ditch the agreement with the Cook County IG altogether. Failing to complete the agreement in favor of launching a new initiative now could delay oversight of the district for years. Most commissioners including Commissioners Morita, Marcelino Garcia, Debra Shore, Mariyana Spyropoulos, Kimberly du Buclet, and Cameron Davis have made it clear that they are committed to moving forward with the Cook County agreement. Although Commissioner Frank Avila spoke in favor of pursuing a procurement process during the recent board meeting, he clarified in an email, “we voted to have staff explore the [agreement] with the county and I want to see that through as of now.”

After decades of scandals, commissioners finally committed themselves to fixing major problems at the MWRD. Failing to put in place a strong agreement with Cook County now would not only be a step backward, it would be a clear sign to the public that the board is not truly interested in accountability. The options were studied, a path was chosen, a commitment was made. It’s time for action. It’s time for oversight, now.