Category Archives: Transparency

BGA Backs New State Disclosure Effort

Improved anti-corruption filing will help keep lawmakers in check

Emily_Miller_BGA_Bio copy

By Emily Miller  
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.

Having information about potential conflicts of interest held by public officials is vital to ensuring our government is accountable to taxpayers—not to private or personal interests.

But in Illinois, good government groups commonly refer to the current economic disclosure form lawmakers and other government officials are required to file as ”a waste of paper.”

Even though the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act has required elected officials and high-ranking government employees to file economic disclosure forms for over 40 years, the form is so vague and ineffective that 85% of those returning the form in Cook County filled in every question with the phrase “Not Applicable.”

That’s why the Better Government Association is backing a bill that will require Illinois lawmakers and other high-ranking state and county officials to file a revamped economic disclosure form designed to ferret out conflicts of interest.

SB3941, introduced by Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33) with support from Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, requires officials to report potential conflicts of interest by asking specific questions about assets, gifts, and debts. In addition, for the first time, officials will have to report outside sources of income and lobbyists who are family members or with whom they have close economic ties.

The legislation also lays the groundwork for the state to move toward an online filing system that will further improve transparency of potential conflicts of interest held by government officials.

Specifically, the legislation will require officials to report:

  • Assets valued at more than $10,000
  • Additional sources of income in excess of $2,500
  • Debts over $5,000 incurred by or owed to the filer, other than those owed to a financial institution.
  • Lobbyists with whom the filer has an economic relationship
  • Family members of the filer, including a spouse, child, step-child, parent, step-parent or sibling, who are lobbyists registered with any unit of government in Illinois
  • Gifts with a value of $500 or more

The BGA will be working hard alongside reform-minded lawmakers to pass SB3941 in January.

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Filed under Legislative Update, Transparency

BGA to Chicago City Council: Delay Infrastructure Trust Plan

An open letter to aldermen says the Mayor’s blueprint needs greater scrutiny and more public accountability. It urges the City Council to vote no, or to delay and review, the controversial ordinance.

April 17, 2012

Dear Aldermen:

It is the position of the Better Government Association that the ordinance creating the Infrastructure Trust lacks measures to ensure the transparency, oversight and accountability necessary to protect taxpayers and to properly inform the public about the Trust’s motivations and actions.

The BGA urges you to vote “no” on the ordinance creating the Infrastructure Trust or to defer and publish it, which would postpone its passage long enough to allow further review and possible revisions. Here’s why:

More time is needed to understand the scope and scale of the Infrastructure Trust.

The fast-tracking advocated by the Mayor’s office leaves too little time for Aldermen and public interest groups to fully examine and evaluate the ordinance. The revised ordinance from the Mayor’s office—the one you will be called to vote on tomorrow—has only been public since Friday. An ordinance to create a multi-billion dollar trust with taxpayer money deserves a longer period of time between introduction and passage, and public hearings would help Aldermen and citizens understand the merits and pitfalls of the Mayor’s proposal.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act do not apply to the Infrastructure Trust, a non-profit agency.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA) are state statutes that apply only to public bodies. The Illinois Attorney General has jurisdiction over public bodies that fail to comply with the requirements of FOIA and OMA, and a special office (the Public Access Counselor) to assist citizens who are unable to obtain documents via FOIA.

Unlike public bodies, non-profits like the Trust are not subject to Illinois FOIA or OMA. A city ordinance cannot unilaterally extend the authority of the Illinois Attorney General over a non-profit. That means that if the Trust fails to comply with FOIA or OMA, the only recourse is litigation in the courts. Citizens and members of the press submitting FOIA requests to the Trust will not have the protections and assistance offered by the Public Access Counselor, who ensures that public entities comply with FOIA.

The Chicago Inspector General does not have jurisdiction over the Infrastructure Trust.

The Chicago Inspector General does not have jurisdiction over the Trust because the Trust is a separate entity from the city. To the extent that the Trust enters agreements with the City, the IG could potentially examine those specific agreements. However, the IG’s authority does not extend to deals with related agencies, some of which do not have their own Inspector General. As you know, related city agencies include the Chicago Public Schools, the Housing Authority and the Park District, taxpayer-supported agencies that have great impact on residents’ lives.

For these reasons and more we urge you to vote “no” or move to delay a vote. This is not to denigrate the mayor’s plan but to improve it by adding enough transparency, accountability and oversight measures to avoid another fiasco like the privatization of the parking meters. Let’s go slow and get this one right.

If you have any additional questions, do not hesitate to email or call Emily Miller, BGA Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator, at emiller@bettergov.org or 773-203-9654; or Robert Reed, BGA Director of Investigations and Programming, at 312-203-5722 or rreed@bettergov.org.

Thank you.

Andy Shaw
President and CEO

Emily Miller
Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator

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Filed under Andy Shaw, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Transparency

Should Elected Officials Have to Clock In for Work?

Time for elected pols to watch the clock? (Photo by zoutedrop/cc)


By Emily Miller

This Think Tank post was also published Dec. 29, 2011 by HuffingtonPost.com/Chicago. Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.


There is a saying commonly attributed to the innovative business organization scholar W. Edwards Deming: “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

This post was first published by Huffingtonpost.com/Chicago.

When it comes to proving they are logging enough time on the job to deserve their taxpayer-funded pensions, DuPage County Board members would do well to recognize they fall into that “all others” category.

A recent Better Government Association investigation found a high rate of absenteeism among some DuPage County Board members, who were not putting in the hours that taxpayers expect and deserve from their public servants. This week, a BGA investigation, featured in the Daily Herald, revealed those same board members passed a resolution certifying that each member was completing 1,000 hours of work per year — a move that keeps them eligible for their public pensions.

Yet despite a state regulation requiring a government body “be prepared to document the time actually required to perform the duties of the office,” no one — not even the board members themselves — were able to vouch for the number of hours they are putting in each week, the BGA discovered.

The BGA investigation begs an important question: should governing bodies require elected officials to prove to taxpayers they are properly qualifying for a public pension?

County rank and file workers punch time cards or fill out time sheets. County elected officials, however, have their board certify when they take office that their position requires 1,000 hours of work per year. No other measures are used to ensure that is actually the case.

Why shouldn’t elected and appointed officials be just as accountable as other full-time employees?

The State of New York thinks they should be.

Since 1976, it has compelled its elected and appointed officials to be more accountable to taxpayers and to the pension system.

An elected or appointed official who participates in the New York state pension system, and doesn’t otherwise fill out a time sheet for their job, must keep track of their work-related activities for a three-month timeframe at the beginning of each term of office.

Work-related activities include meetings and addressing constituent concerns but they do not include time spent performing campaign duties.

Among the elected and appointed officials who must fill out the work activity log are local and county government officials, including county board members and judges.

The work logs are turned into the appropriate governing board, like the city council or county board, who must then vote to certify the log, vouching that the time sheets are accurate reflections of the time spent by the elected official during the three-month period in question. The form then gets turned over to the Comptroller whose office oversees the New York State and Local Retirement System.

That log is kept as proof that the elected position takes the amount of time required to qualify for a public pension. It also provides a three-month snapshot of a public official’s activities for everyone to see.

The New York system has strengths and weaknesses.

Although useful at evaluating how much time an elected official’s position really requires (and whether it should be pension eligible), it only records the officeholder’s first three months on the job.

Once that three-month reporting period is over, officials are back to the honor system to show how they are spending their time on the taxpayers’ payroll.

In Illinois, governing bodies skip the accountability piece all together, going straight to the resolution that claims officials are spending 1,000 hours per year.

Proving that elected officials are putting in the amount of time their positions require is important. Taxpayers have the right to know their elected officials are providing them with the services they’re elected to provide.

Admittedly, public officials often work odd hours, putting in time on weekends, evenings and in emergency situations that make it difficult to clock in and out in a traditional way.

Determining a way to make public officials accountable for their time is a delicate balance between creating an additional layer of paperwork and bureaucracy compared to creating a system that honestly holds elected officials accountable.

At the very least, it’s worth exploring ways to make sure our elected officials follow Demings’ lead and “bring the data.”

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Filed under DuPage County, Fiscal Reform, Transparency

Vexatious Outcome: New Illinois Law Hurts Freedom of Information Act

vexatious

After months of fighting to protect the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which protects citizens’ access to information about their government, the Better Government Association is disappointed with Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to sign a bill into law that limits the public’s right to know.

While state lawmakers made FOIA stronger in 2010, attempts to chip away at the newly minted protections began as soon as the law went into effect.

FOIA gives public bodies five business days to respond to a request for public information, or 10 days if they get an extension.

But the new law allows public bodies to label citizens as “recurrent requesters”, referred to as “vexatious requesters” in earlier versions of the legislation.

Recurrent requesters are citizens who make more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in 30 days, or seven in seven days. Once a citizen is labeled a recurrent requester it’s harder for them to access public information for an entire year. Once a public body determines someone is a recurrent requester, there is no appeals process.

The new law requires no set timeline by which a public body must respond to a recurrent requester. Instead, public bodies can take 21 days to give a recurrent requester an estimate as to when they might get the requested documents.

While the new law will also give the Illinois Attorney General more time to spend issuing binding opinions, and less time on bureaucratic paperwork, that does not make up for the bad public policy contained in the remainder of the new law.

Illinois should be moving toward increased openness and transparency, not away from it. Instead of focusing on ways to punish “recurrent requesters”, public bodies should be focusing on how to make public information more accessible through use of the web. If more basic public information, like meeting minutes and contracts, were available online, citizens wouldn’t need to file as many FOIAs.

Unfortunately, we know this is not the end of the fight to protect FOIA. Without a doubt, lawmakers will continue to try chip away at FOIA.

The BGA remains committed to shining a light on government, and we will continue to fight for the public’s right to do the same.

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Filed under FOIA, Legislative Update, Transparency

Inspector General to ‘Open Chicago’ With New Transparency Initiative

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

Image (remixed) courtesy withassociates/Flickr

Today I’m watching another group that watches the behavior of public officials and their governments—the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (IGO)—which just announced a new transparency initiative dubbed “Open Chicago.”

This is a major step toward the level of transparency that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis envisioned nearly a century ago when he called “sunlight the best disinfectant.”

You can’t assess a government you can’t see, and this transparency initiative will make it easier to shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable. Chicago taxpayers should be encouraged by the efforts of Joe Ferguson, an inspector general who is willing and eager to use all the tools at his disposal to facilitate the higher quality of government we deserve but too infrequently receive.

Here’s the release from the IG:

Chicago Inspector General Announces New Transparency Initiative “Open Chicago”

Citing the importance of promoting and enhancing transparency in City government Inspector General Joe Ferguson today announced “Open Chicago,” a new transparency initiative.

Hosted on the City of Chicago’s Office of Inspector General’s (IGO) newly redesigned website, the initiative is aimed at increasing the public’s understanding of City government and to further the IGO’s mandate of promoting economy, efficiency, effectiveness and integrity in the administration of the programs and operations of the City government.

“The mission of the IGO is to promote efficiency and effectiveness in government programs. Vindication of that mission requires accountability, which is elusive without transparency,” said Inspector General Joe Ferguson. “Public information, necessary to the IGO’s understanding and assessment of government operations, is equally necessary to making City government more transparent to Chicago residents. With this initiative, the IGO is committing itself to making public data available utilized in the course of our work to inform our understanding of what the City does and how it does it.”

Open Chicago will have three main components: (i) increasing the transparency of the IGO’s audits and program reviews; (ii) publishing and linking to public, non-confidential City data on the IGO’s website; and (iii) identifying best practices in government transparency and accountability.

The goal of Open Chicago is to make City government more transparent. When appropriate, the IGO will ask the City departments responsible for public data to publish the data themselves. If City departments agree to these requests and publish the information in a manner that meets the Open Chicago criteria for true transparency, the IGO will simply link to this information on its website.

In response to the first Open Chicago request from the IGO, the City has published its Collective Bargaining Agreements with local unions, Single Audit Reports on Federal Grants, as well as the list of property the City leases. The IGO has provided these links on its website. Previously, the IGO posted an Excel version of the City’s budget.

“The City has made strides in committing itself to transparency, but gaps remain. The IGO is uniquely positioned to shore up those gaps, and our office has the knowledge to provide context for and analysis of City data, as well as the capabilities for making that data accessible to the public,” said Mr. Ferguson.

The IGO will periodically update its Open Chicago page with new datasets. Questions or suggestions for new data can be directed to openchicago@chicagoinspectorgeneral.org. Follow the IGO on Twitter at ChicagoIGO for the latest Open Chicago information, as well updates on how the IGO continues to fight waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in Chicago government.

I’d love to read your comments about the initiative….

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Filed under Andy Shaw, Transparency

FOIA’s Cloudy Future has us Vexed

Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Matt Wuerker/Politico

“Sunshine Week,” a national campaign dedicated to protecting the public’s right to get information about their government, is now being celebrated. But in Illinois, the outlook for such access is more cloudy than bright.

Last year, a new Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) went into effect, making it easier for people to receive more information about their government in a timely manner.

Now, however, some state lawmakers are trying to undercut the new FOIA law by introducing bills that range from charging money to get public documents to watering down a citizen’s ability to appeal an initial FOIA denial from a government agency.

More than ten bills were introduced this year aimed at reducing FOIA’s reach.

One of the most aggressive attempts to roll back the protections of FOIA is Senate Bill 1645, sponsored by State Sen. Edward Maloney (D-Chicago).

If passed, public entities would have the authority to delay responding, until a time they deem reasonable, to a FOIA request on the grounds that they find it to be “vexatious.”

What is vexatious? Our thesaurus says it is synonymous with annoying, irritating or bothersome. Not one of those are words lawmakers typically associate with constituents who are asserting their rights to access information about their government.

So, if this bill passes, how easy would it be for a FOIA request to be labeled as vexatious? Pretty easy.

Among other things, a request can be labeled vexatious if you have already made five or more FOIA requests in a year and if the public body thinks the request is unduly burdensome.

Then, once it’s labeled vexatious, the bill adds language to existing law that prevents you from appealing that label to any higher legal authority. So once a public body calls a request vexatious, you’re vexatious for good. And you get tracked in a log with all the other vexatious people.

One section of the bill exempts the press from being called vexatious, which means that members of the press have more of a right to public information than constituents.

This is a disturbing possibility.

Public bodies should not be given the authority to deny access to public information for constituents they deem annoying, particularly when there is no higher legal authority that reviews that determination or can overturn it.

SB 1645 is headed to the Senate floor for a vote by the full chamber. The BGA will be working hard to stop this vexing legislation from going any further.

WHAT NOW? You can help by letting your state senator know that you oppose this effort—enter your address here to find your state senator’s information. Put in a call and remind him or her that access to public information is vital, and that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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Filed under FOIA, Transparency

Vox Populi: Regular Folks Respond To BGA Chicago Mayoral Questionnaire

No more parking meter deals without representation! Or at least a financial audit!

That’s a rallying cry the next mayor of Chicago should heed before attempting to spin off any major public assets, such as Midway Airport or the city’s water system, to private investors, according to members of the general public who responded to the 2011 BGA Chicago Mayoral Questionnaire.

In addition, responses to the questionnaire indicate the public craves a tighter, leaner and more accountable city government. But a slim majority doesn’t want to reduce costs by chopping away at the medical and retirement benefits of current city workers.

A total of 32 people responded to the BGA questionnaire. Their reactions come after all six mayoral hopefuls participated in the questionnaire and their answers were posted Jan. 26 on the BGA website. At that time, the BGA invited the general public to take the questionnaire and have their responses posted online.

Admittedly, this is not a scientific poll but rather a means of gauging the candidates’ views and comparing them to a sampling of a broader public response. Here are some highlights:

Selling city assets

A solid 100 percent of the general audience said public hearings and greater financial accountability should be required before any public assets are spun off to private buyers. That answer coincides with all the mayoral hopefuls, who agreed that such basic measures are necessary before the city enters any new privatization deals such as the controversial parking meter deal.

Free Forum: Feb. 9 @ 8 p.m.

The BGA will explore privatization at the Feb. 9 forum, “Privatizing Chicago: The New Chicago Way?” at Columbia College, 618 S. Michigan Ave. at 8 P.M.
>> CLICK HERE for details.

Expanding the Inspector General’s reach

Of those responding to the questionnaire, 94 percent say the Inspector General should have the right to go beyond city agencies and investigate the legislative branch of city government. All six mayoral candidates said they favor this proposal.

Reducing the size of the City Council

Of those responding to the questionnaire, 75 percent want to cut the size of the City Council. Of the six mayoral candidates, Gery Chico and William Walls III said “yes”; Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins said “no”; and Rahm Emanuel did not respond within the questionnaire’s parameters.

Reducing the salary of mayor and aldermen

Of those responding to the questionnaire, 91 percent said go for it. Of the six mayoral candidates, Emanuel, del Valle, Chico and Walls agreed to consider it; Moseley Braun and Van Pelt-Watkins said “no” to that possibility.

Merging, streamlining or eliminating departments

Of those responding to the questionnaire, 94 percent said there are places to cut. All the candidates agreed.

Cutting medical, pension benefits for city workers

Of those responding to the questionnaire, nearly 55 percent said “no.” Five of the candidates also said “no” to such cutbacks and Emanuel did not respond within the questionnaire’s parameters.

Police and public safety

Of those responding to the questionnaire, 78 percent said they favor realigning police beats to improve public safety and cut costs. Del Valle, Moseley Braun, Van Pelt-Watkins and Walls said “yes”; Emanuel and Chico said “no.”

Meanwhile, 65 percent said the next Chicago police chief should come from the ranks of the city’s police department. Four of the candidates—del Valle, Moseley Braun, Chico and Walls agreed and said “yes.” Van Pelt-Watkins said “no” and Emanuel did not respond within the questionnaire’s parameters.

Personal Finances

Finally, the candidates’ personal finances are of interest to a large majority of those responding to the questionnaire; 87 percent think a mayoral aspirant should reveal his or her tax returns before the Feb. 22 election. Five of the six candidates agreed while Walls said “no.”

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Reed, the BGA’s director of programming. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or email our investigative team at rherguth@bettergov.org.

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Filed under 2011 Chicago Elections, Streamlining Government, Transparency