Who’s on Watch? Q&A with BGA Reporter Casey Toner

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Better Government Association is shifting gears to help inform the public about the government's role and actions during the crisis. We (virtually) sat down with BGA reporter Casey Toner to ask him how he is responding to the coronavirus.

Tell folks about your pre-coronavirus work for the BGA?

I’ve worked on a range of stories since I started working for the BGA more than four years ago. Our series “Taking Cover,” which prompted a state law, examined a dozen years of suburban police shootings and exposed a complete lack of oversight and raised serious questions of accountability. Another investigation, “An American Suburb, 2018” explored the decades long regional disinvestment through the Village of Dolton, a south suburb with working class roots that has fallen on hard times. Last year, my story “Small Town Government, Chicago-style politics” delved into the Village of Lyons, a western suburb that is run by a mayor who built a political army with campaign funds currently holding more than $400,000, restored the family fiefdom that was once guided by his felon father, and transformed the financially ailing government under his control into a stronghold of nepotism and cozy deals. Months after our story was published, federal agents raided the mayor’s office and local insurance business.

How are you doing things differently in light of the pandemic?

I bought a new monitor because the prospect of gazing into my 13-inch laptop screen for months at a time was impossible to bear. To keep me company, I’ve also placed on my desk bobbleheads of Chicago Bulls legend Joahkim Noah and White Sox World Series closer Bobby Jenks as well as my cowbell from Mississippi State (Go Dawgs!). Workwise, my communication avenues are more limited. You can’t just show up on someone’s doorstep, grab coffee with a source, explore a neighborhood, or talk to strangers in a bar during a pandemic. I miss all of this. Now I’m marooned at home and reliant on phone calls and email. At first it was strange, but this is the new reality. Over the past year, I’ve gotten into more data journalism for an upcoming project and fortunately that is something that can be done remotely.

One other thing, COVID-19 has changed every part of American society, including the tsunami of news we are receiving about the pandemic. So at the BGA we have to adjust our focus and consider government stories connected to the coronavirus that are being overlooked by the larger news outlets. Earlier this month, we published an investigation about the impact the coronavirus is having on government-funded needle exchange programs. These programs not only assist people who use heroin but also society at large. When the pandemic hit the U.S., many needle exchange programs cut back significantly, including in Chicago. But reporting that story wasn’t easy. Using gloves and a homemade mask, I went out to Chicago’s Austin neighborhood with our photographer and spoke with heroin users and their care providers. Speaking to the heroin users, listening to their stories, and writing about this public health catastrophe from their unique perspectives has been the best thing I’ve done since the lockdown began.

What are you looking for in how governments respond to COVID-19?

Especially in a time of crisis, governments and their leaders need to be honest and open with their constituents about what this means in the short and long terms. Now is not the time to sugarcoat facts. Governments need to be responsive to their residents’ needs and direct about the challenges that lie ahead.

I would also hope elected officials do not use the crisis to do away with good government measures or weaken open records laws they may find annoying. On the contrary, these laws are vital to understanding how power is wielded, especially in a pandemic when the public health and the economy are at stake.

Defending a plan to suspend deadlines to release public records, Mayor Lori Lightfoot casually suggested epidemiologists may be pulled off the front lines of COVID-19 to answer such FOIA requests. I suggested on Twitter that any epidemiologist who is taken off the front lines of COVID-19 to answer FOIA requests should contact me.

My offer still stands.

What government responses to COVID-19 have surprised you? Which ones haven't?

The absence of strong messaging or early implementation of a robust action plan from the federal government has been disappointing. The vacuum of a top-down federal presence has allowed culture wars to brew, regional divisions to widen, and conspiracies to fester, making this whole thing worse.

On a lighter note, in the midst of a national tragedy I found myself surprised by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s speech from her office in early March. She spoke eloquently about the Chicago Fire and the Great Recession, the responsibilities we have for one another, and ended with some words from our city’s great poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” To be clear, this has nothing to do with her performance as mayor during the crisis. I just can’t recall a time in my life when I thought that a Chicago mayor made a great speech. Ever.

Who are you most worried about during this outbreak?

I worry about my family, especially my parents and aunts and uncles, who are more susceptible to the virus. Mom and Dad celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in June, and I love them dearly. Like a lot of people, I think they are struggling with isolation and they miss spending time with their grandkids, who typically occupy much of their time. To break up some of the day to day monotony, they’ve been talking about pulling the trigger and getting a Labradoodle, a decision I support 100 percent.

 


As the BGA adapts to the growing challenges facing our community. We want to make sure we are covering the stories that matter most to you. If you have questions about the government's response to the outbreak, visit the "What The Gov?" section of the website. You ask. We investigate.
 

Casey Toner is a longtime local journalist who worked for over four years at the SouthtownStar on major beats and investigative stories. Most recently, Casey has worked as a government/political reporter for AL.com, a statewide online reporting site operated by a consortium of Alabama newspapers.  At the BGA, Casey will do general assignment reporting with an emphasis on statewide government investigations.