Editorial: Suburbs, like big cities, need government watchdogs

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One of the most amazing aspects of the sad story of Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, the Fox Lake cop who staged his suicide to look like a murder, is that his corrupt ways went unchecked for decades.

Gliniewicz allegedly stole for years from a youth program he ran, and he was rewarded with promotions despite a long history of accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

Then again, maybe this is not amazing.

EDITORIAL

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Federal prosecutors, the media, civic watchdog groups and independent inspector generals keep a pretty close watch on Chicago and other big units of government. But nobody keeps the same close eye on our region’s smaller towns and suburbs. When corruption finally is unearthed in a suburb, it is not unusual to find it had been going on for a very long time, quietly tearing down the town from within.

A powerful check against public corruption, even in a small community, can be an inspector general. Every town — or a group of towns — should employ a fully empowered inspector general. When a town does not, an inspector general employed by the county should have the legal authority to step in.

Next month, Commissioner Larry Suffredin plans to introduce an ordinance calling for this arrangement in Cook County. If a suburb does not submit a regular financial audit required by state law — a common red flag of municipal mismanagement — Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart would be authorized to dispatch an inspector general. The ordinance’s emphasis, though, would be to encourage communities to voluntarily submit to oversight by a county IG.

The job of an inspector general in a suburb or small town is not so much to uncover criminal activity, Suffredin said, but to help the community operate more professionally and efficiently. The kind of money-saving suggestions Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson has made a hallmark of his tenure, such as changing the routes for garbage trucks, can be every bit as helpful for a small suburb.

Gliniewicz is thought to have committed suicide on Sept. 1 because a new Fox Lake village administrator, Anne Marrin, was asking questions and he feared he was about to be found out. But if Fox Lake had had an independent inspector general all along, it is entirely plausible that the lieutenant — a 30-year veteran of the police force — would have been held to account much earlier.

A good inspector general might have noticed that Gliniewicz failed to fully account for how he spent funds for the Explorer youth police training program he ran. The IG might have received and acted on anonymous complaints — largely ignored by the village mayor and police chief — about the lieutenant’s bad conduct. Some of those complaints dated to the 1980s.

We can imagine the IG’s hotline ringing off the hook.

Of the 140 towns and suburbs in Cook County, only 10 up to now have taken up Sheriff Dart — eagerly or reluctantly — on his offer to provide inspector general services. They are Country Club Hills, Crestwood, Dolton, Steger, Maywood, Richton Park, Robbins, Harvey, Midlothian and Broadview. But every town, even the smallest, could benefit by doing the same.

“That’s the government that has the biggest impact on people’s lives,” said Cara Smith, chief strategist for Dart. “Every level of government should have that check and balance. There is no argument to the contrary.”

We don’t want to oversell this thing. Some inspector generals are more effective than others. A multi-year study by the Better Government Association concluded that inspector generals for seven major institutions, including Chicago’s City Hall and the Chicago Public Schools, have a track record that is “at best, mixed” when it comes “to busting Chicago-scale corruption schemes.”

But as Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the BGA, has argued in a weekly column he writes for the Sun-Times, the best inspector generals serve the taxpayers well. And the mere presence of an inspector general is likely to deter wrongdoing and encourage professionalism.

Every government, big or small, needs a watchdog.

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