Illinois government made history last week, and not for what you might have expected, like a new record for unpaid bills, underfunded pensions, unresolved budgets or an underwhelming business climate.
This time it’s actual progress — the swearing in of Cook County’s first African-American state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, in Chicago, and the first Hispanic statewide official, Comptroller Susana Mendoza, in Springfield.
They took office in rooms filled with proud friends and family members who listened, teary-eyed, as Foxx and Mendoza expressed their gratitude and appreciation for those who helped them get here, and a sense of awe they got here at all.
The new officeholders also made some reform-minded, good government promises — the kind we’re used to hearing at swearing-in ceremonies — and maybe they’ll surprise us by following through on most of them.
Foxx, who grew up in Chicago public housing and served as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s chief of staff, said her prosecutor’s office would speed up investigations of police-involved shootings; create a new firearms trafficking unit; revamp the wrongful convictions unit; implement ethics and diversity training; make case records more readily available to the public; and join the fight for criminal justice reforms.
That’s an ambitious and encouraging agenda.
Mendoza, who stepped down as Chicago city clerk to take over management of the state’s barren checking account, pledges to “safeguard the interests of the state’s most vulnerable people” as she deals with a backlog of nearly $11 billion in unpaid bills.
“That $11 billion signifies people who need us to do the right thing for them,” she says. “They’re not numbers on a spreadsheet, they’re stories of people’s lives and how people are hurting in this state.”
Mendoza previously served five terms as a state representative in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democratic caucus, but she wisely blames both parties for the protracted budget impasse, and says she’s inclined to follow her Republican predecessor’s policy of putting payment of lawmaker salaries at the back of the line, along with her own paycheck.
Mendoza and Foxx begin their new terms with a surplus of good will and a world of potential. In fact, their only missing promise may have been inadvertent — let’s give them the benefit of the doubt this first time around — but it’s a pledge I’m asking them to make now: Comply with our Freedom of Information Act requests so we don’t have to file lawsuits against your offices like we did with your predecessors.
The BGA sued the comptroller’s office last year for “willfully and intentionally violating FOIA” by refusing to turn over records, including “private” emails, showing which state employees the new Rauner administration wanted to keep on the payroll, allegedly for political reasons.
Our 2015 suit against the state’s attorney’s office came after requests for performance records we could evaluate — felony charges, plea bargains, appeals, overturned convictions and Open Meetings Act complaints — were repeatedly rejected.
We eventually got most of the records we were seeking, but the protracted court battles unnecessarily wasted a lot of time and money — ours and yours, as taxpayers — resources that could have been used in more constructive and productive ways.
So State’s Attorney Foxx and Comptroller Mendoza: Remember that FOIA — our open records law — is the key to transparency, and transparency is a cornerstone of good government.
You pledged to be transparent at your swearing-in ceremonies, and watchdogs like the BGA are committed to making sure you keep that promise.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga