The Better Government Association’s policy guru, Emily Miller, talked with Outside the Loop’s Mike Stephen about BGA’s top legislative priorities for the current session—protecting the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and reforming township government.
Category Archives: Commentary
By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO
The following commentary was published this weekend in the Chicago Sun-Times. >> Click here to read Chris Kennedy’s letter to me about police bodyguard details for politicians.
Christopher Kennedy, president of the Merchandise Mart and U. of I. board chairman, is one of Chicago’s most prominent business and civic leaders. He also grew up with the unimaginable scars of two horrific family tragedies: The assassinations of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, and his father, Robert, during the 1968 Presidential campaign. Few people have a closer connection to the existential dangers of public service in the emotional and sometimes irrational world of politics and public service. So when Chris wrote me recently to weigh in on the controversy over the police bodyguard detail that’s been protecting Chicago alderman and Finance Committee chairman Ed Burke for several decades, I paid close attention.
“Now is the wrong time to decrease protection for public servants,” Kennedy wrote. “It is a time of budget cuts, layoffs, vendor consolidation and cuts to all services, all of which are enormously disruptive to people’s lives. These victims of the recession in general and government cuts in particular sometimes mischannel the anger caused by such disruption. At these times an elected official like Alderman Burke—who has long tenure, a committee chairmanship and a high-profile—is a potential focus for misplaced anger, hatred and revenge.”
The letter arrived a few days before a news report that one of Burke’s southwest side constituents had been arrested for leaving a threatening phone message at Burke’s ward office.
Let me put this in context: The Better Government Association filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department earlier this year because CPD refused to provide us with financial and manpower details of Burke’s security detail. We’re not advocating for or against his police protection, and we’re not trying to jeopardize his safety, but we do believe the public has a right to know how many officers are assigned to the detail, and how much it costs taxpayers. We don’t need a day-by-day security breakdown—how many cops in how many cars—but we do believe that annualized statistics will give the public a sense of how police are being deployed and tax dollars spent at a time when both are in short supply.
CPD has refused to provide the information, despite repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, claiming it’s a private security matter, but we respectfully disagree. Annualized data won’t endanger Burke, but it will make it easier to decide if one of Chicago’s 50 aldermen deserves a 24-7 bodyguard detail wherever he goes.
Chris Kennedy seems to agree with the transparency argument, writing that “the FOIA process has provided a pretty good vehicle for increasing the amount of disclosure and transparency and as such is a good tool for the BGA.” He adds that “pursuing information is a worthy goal” before adding his personal view of the Burke situation.
Burke’s security detail has been a hot-button issue for years—the late mayor Harold Washington tried to scale it back in the 1980’s, when he and Burke were engaged in the pitched political battle known as “Council Wars.” Burke won the security showdown in 1986 when a Cook County judge blocked Washington’s cutback effort, and Mayor Daley, who has his own bodyguard detail, has never challenged Burke on the security issue. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said publicly the Burke detail is probably unsupportable at a time when taxpayers and city workers are being asked to sacrifice, but Emanuel hasn’t said anything about downsizing his own security or reviewing the police protection the city clerk and treasurer receive.
As for the man who threatened Burke, he apologized, blaming the phone call on his medical problems, which include AIDS, depression and the abuse of both alcohol and prescription drugs. “I’ve never been in trouble with the law,” Timothy Hercog said. “I’m not a violent person. I’ve never hurt anyone.”
In his letter to me, Chris Kennedy says “one of the great byproducts of a strong BGA is the potential to lure high-quality candidates back into government service. Somehow we need to strike the right balance between cost-cutting and personal safety.”
We couldn’t agree more. We’re simply arguing for transparency—our right to know the basics so the right decisions can be made. As revered Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1913, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” That’s still true nearly a century later, as we celebrate “Sunshine Week,” which recognizes the first step in assessing the performance of government is transparency. You can’t assess what you can’t see.
Chris Kennedy makes a strong case for protecting some elected officials. So in the spirit of Brandeis, transparency and “Sunshine Week,” CPD should release relevant information about the present so we can make an informed decision about the future.
By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO
Went to hair stylist extraordinaire Jeananne for a trim on Election Day so I’d look presentable for TV analysis that night. She’s a Mount Greenwood girl whose dad was a fireman so it’s no surprise that she liked Gery Chico in the Chicago mayor’s race. That’s the demographic. But she hadn’t voted that day and didn’t plan to. Forgot to register at her new address and couldn’t get enough time off work to make it back to her polling place. So Gery lost that vote. It didn’t affect the outcome, but it did send a message about a missing piece of this messy political system we call democracy.
The turnout in Chicago on February 22, the first contested mayor’s race in two decades in a city mired in multiple crises, was just over 40 percent. By way of comparison, 80 percent of the city’s voters raced to the polls for 1983’s historic election of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.
You’ve seen and heard all the explanations for the abysmally low turnout in this latest “important and historic” election. The media created a sense of inevitability for Rahm Emanuel, so there was no suspense. He had enough money for endless TV ads highlighting super-star supporters like President Obama and former President Clinton. The black community never warmed up to gaffe-prone “consensus” candidate Carol Moseley Braun. Chico and Miguel del Valle split up the Latino vote. And the February weather was cold and snowy. Back in 1983 there was “real” history unfolding in front of us as Washington, a journeyman congressman and long shot underdog at the outset, built a once-in-a-lifetime “movement” that included most of the city’s Blacks, Latinos and progressive whites—just enough voters to defeat incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and then state’s attorney Richard M. Daley.
The elections were, in fact, very different, even though both were labeled “historic.” 1983 was obviously more exciting. But not more important. And that’s why the relatively low turnout on February 22 is so disappointing. We’ve been riveted for a month by the unbelievably dramatic stories about the democratic push that is sweeping across much of the Arab world like a California wildfire—from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of people, oppressed for decades by authoritarian regimes, risking their lives by marching and demonstrating. The spirit of colonial America circa 1776 prevails as rulers step down and puppet governments pledge to unbuckle the political straight jackets so their people can breathe in the sweet scent of freedom and democracy—scents we’ve been inhaling for more than two centuries.
Government in the United States is in crisis at all levels. Massive budget deficits, bloated bureaucracies and unsustainable retiree health and pension obligations. Not enough cops on the streets, good teachers in the schools, efficient services or best practices to mimic. All of this applies to Chicago and should have been motivation enough for a big voter-turnout, regardless of the mitigating circumstances.
But only four out of every 10 registered voters made it out to the polls. Maybe that means that only four out of every 10 Chicagoans earned the right to gripe if they don’t like the way Rahm Emanuel goes about cleaning up the mess.
Emanuel said the “election was about reform,” and he’s made a lot of encouraging promises. The BGA will be watching closely, shining a bright light on his government and holding him accountable. And so will the hundreds of “citizen watchdogs” we’ve been training in sessions around the city and suburbs. We headed out to Joliet for a training session this week, with a follow-up one next week. Fifty motivated people who care about their government showed up. They understand, like we do, that our hard-earned tax dollars have to be spent on us, not the politicians. They will be watching the Joliet mayor and city council and the Will County board. But it’s likely they’ll also be paying close attention to Chicago because it’s the big dog in the eyes of the media, and with a high-profile, one-name mayor-elect, the stories will be irresistible—or at least unavoidable.
Jeananne will be watching the same stories. And when it comes time to grade Emanuel’s performance in a re-election campaign, if there is one, she’ll hopefully be registered to vote in her new neighborhood so she can weigh in on the job he’s done. That’ll mean she understands her obligation as an engaged citizen.
We need an army of engaged citizens to advocate for better government alongside reform groups like the BGA. Better government is a right and a responsibility, and we can make it a reality if we’re all in this together. That’s the dizzying dance of democracy. And the ticket to the dance floor is a receipt from the polling place on election day.
By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO
The BGA loves seniors. In fact, some of us watchdogs wear the gray mantle proudly.
But the old saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” actually rings true in this daunting and sometimes frightening era of massive government deficits, bloated bureaucracies, unaffordable services and benefits, and intolerable patronage. So the BGA is proud to have waged a successful campaign to eliminate the unaffordable aspects of the “Seniors Ride Free” transit program. The freebie was an ill-advised political stunt by our disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich, and it proved to be a mismanaged, abuse-ridden boondoggle, as we demonstrated in an investigative series with FOX Chicago News that we titled “Riding While Dead.” More than a third of the free rides were taken by seniors with incomes above $55,000 a year, at a time when the state is billions of dollars in the red.
So we applaud the Illinois lawmakers who followed our stories and approved legislation that restricts the program to the neediest seniors, those taking home less than $25,000 a year. And we appreciate Gov. Pat Quinn signing a measure he opposed until recently. There are, sadly, still far too many “free lunches” permeating government. That’s a big part of the public sector fiscal crisis. Ending free rides for seniors won’t end the free lunch mentality, but it’ll take a few fries off the plate. Now we’ll go after the budget-busting burgers.
By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO
Way to go Joe! The value of an independent inspector general free of political pressure is once again writ large as Chicago I.G. Joe Ferguson unearths reporting inaccuracies in the city’s employee furlough program—those unpaid days off that city workers from Mayor Daley on down are forced to swallow to save money—and how the inaccuracies create serious budget and pension problems for Chicago taxpayers.
(Feb. 8, 2011) Inspector General Releases Report on City Furlough Program’s Impact on Pensions
The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (IGO) released a report today stating that the City publicly overstated savings realized from its furlough program by $11.05 million. Additionally, the IGO report found that the furlough program will result in increasing the funding shortfall of City employees’ pension funds by approximately $24.55 million dollars.
“As the City tackles its daunting structural deficit, it is important the full impact of those efforts are accurately calculated and fully disclosed to the public,” said Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.
Since mid-2009, the City has used furloughs (mandatory unpaid time off) as a way to cut costs, resulting in a reported savings of approximately $134 million.
However, the IGO found that the City actually saved $11.05 million less than has been reported….
This is the kind of information the City Council’s well-staffed Finance and Budget committees should be providing, but they don’t. So the BGA, and Chicago taxpayers, are grateful to Ferguson’s office, which—like the BGA—is expanding the scope of its mandate to include policy analysis and recommendations, in addition to investigations of waste, fraud and misconduct. Better government is a right and a responsibility, and if we all do our work smartly, aggressively and creatively—with the support of like-minded groups and citizens—it can become a reality.