Shaw: Time for a Watchdog at Metropolitan Water District

Is the government branch that cleans our water ready to clean up its own act?

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw writes a bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has been busy, over the past decade, protecting Lake Michigan, cleaning up Cook County rivers and streams, treating sewage and alleviating flooding. Unfortunately, some of its employees were also busy dirtying up the district’s image, and that kept our Better Government Association watchdog team busy.

We reported on a former MWRD police officer who bragged about a cop culture of sleeping and drinking on the job, district officials who leased land to polluters and blew millions of dollars settling a ridiculous property lawsuit, and a former board president who co-owned a company that was hit with numerous pollution fines.

In addition, our legal team had to sue the district to obtain records we were entitled to, and our investigative team revealed the MWRD pays its employees the highest average salaries of any public agency in Illinois.

Recently the Daily Herald reported that, according to the Green Party, which is fielding candidates in the March 20 primary, companies that were awarded $722 million in MWRD contracts over the past five years contributed more than $400,000 in campaign cash to board members who approve the contracts, raising pay-to-play concerns.

Board president Mariyana Spryopoulos, who got $60,000 in contractor donations, mostly from her annual golf outings, says “I don’t believe there is pay-to-play at the district. What I do believe is that even though MWRD is the best run branch of government in the State of Illinois, there is nothing wrong with an extra set of eyes so taxpayers understand our commitment to being a fiscally responsible steward of their money. That’s why I fully support an Inspector General at the MWRD.”

Amen. The BGA has been saying for years that an agency with more than 2,000 employees and a $1.2 billion budget—more than many cities and towns in Illinois—needs an internal watchdog.

Spryopoulos agrees, and last April she ordered the law department to draft an IG proposal. That led to an August study session where a veteran inspector general and BGA policy manager Rachel Leven explained that an effective IG needs guaranteed resources, insulation from political pressure, and enough tools to conduct vigorous audits and investigations that are made public.

The board followed up by adding a $600,000 IG line to its 2018 budget, which is a good start, and all four Democrats running for three open board seats in the upcoming primary support an inspector general, according to their Chicago Tribune questionnaire responses.

Incumbent Kari Steele says an independent IG can “make taxpayers comfortable that their money is supporting open and honest government.” Her board colleague, Debra Shore, says the benefits of an IG “will be numerous,” and a third incumbent, Martin Durkan, “would seriously consider the merits of the post and would likely support its addition.”

Another IG supporter is Commissioner Josina Morita, who’s not up for re-election, so barring unforeseen pushback, President Spryopoulos should have a solid majority of board members committed to turning the concept into reality this year. One option is an inter-governmental agreement with a current IG to add the MWRD to his or her jurisdiction for a couple years while the district finalizes plans for an internal watchdog office.

That’s a logical approach, and it suggests that, as we turn calendar pages from winter to spring, there could be a sweet scent of reform in the air, not just the stomach-turning stench of sewage.

And if the MWRD board actually approves an IG ordinance, we’ll happily report that the district is finally cleaning up its act, along with the waterways.

About the Author
  • Andy Shaw

    Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.