The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Gets a Watchdog

Under an intergovernmental agreement, the wastewater treatment agency will be overseen by Cook County's Inspector General.

The Cook County board wasted no time in approving its end of a deal that assigns the county’s Inspector General oversight of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Two measures that sealed the deal were approved by acclamation at the board’s April 25 meeting.

The action followed unanimous votes by the MWRD board a week earlier.

For the first time in its 130-year history, the MWRD -- with its 2,000 employees and its $1.2 billion budget -- will be subject to independent oversight.

It’s a smart move, long urged by the Better Government Association. As far back as the 1960s, the BGA reported on patronage hiring and payroll padding at the agency then called the Metropolitan Sanitary District. More recent reporting by the BGA’s investigative team raised questions about the high cost of overtime for the district’s police force and about why MWRD employees have some of the highest average salaries among public agencies in Illinois.

Last year, after the board agreed to explore hiring an IG, the BGA’s policy team produced an analysis and recommendations, based on best practices. The policy team testified several times in favor of an oversight ordinance as the effort moved forward.

The intergovernmental agreement will span three years, at a cost to the wastewater management agency of $600,000 a year. By partnering with the county, the MWRD is able to capitalize on resources and expertise already in place. That means “less money and a quicker start,” said Commissioner Debra Shore, who has pushed for an IG since joining the board in 2006.

“Much attention is often focused on the IGs’ investigations of waste, fraud and abuse,” Shore said in a newsletter to constituents celebrating the deal. “However, I suspect the signal value to MWRD in years to come will be the IG’s independent and professional reviews of programs and practices, which will likely save money and demonstrate ways to serve the public more efficiently and swiftly. That’s my hope.”

The BGA applauds Cook County and the MWRD on this agreement, which helps assure taxpayers that their money will be wisely spent.