The Water Reclamation District needs an effective watchdog

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Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard | Sun-Times library

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago probably is the biggest governmental unit we all pay the least attention to, until we have flooding on our streets and water in our basements.

The agency that protects our water supply, and handles wastewater and stormwater management for Chicago and much of the surrounding Cook County suburbs spends more than $1 billion of our tax money every year and employs 2,000 people.

It’s time someone paid close attention to it.


The great news is that the commissioners who oversee this government are taking steps themselves toward creating an inspector general office that will work to provide independent oversight.

Commissioners already have held two study sessions and appear to be starting by working out an agreement to have Cook County’s inspector general, Patrick Blanchard, also provide oversight of the water district that was founded back in 1889.

It’s important the district create an inspector general with proper funding, who is fully independent and authorized to conduct both audits and investigations that encompass the depth and breadth of the district.

Lawmakers in Springfield still are working to correct myriad problems that surfaced after their legislative leaders failed to find and appoint an independent legislative inspector general. More than two dozen complaints languished while the office was left vacant for three years. And before it was left vacant, previous occupants complained they weren’t given real independence, but instead had to get approval from lawmakers before launching an investigation.

We can’t let that happen here. The water reclamation district has not been immune to complaints and media investigations into waste and corruption over the years. An inspector general will help root out misconduct and corruption, and find efficiencies and cost savings.

Water district commissioners should create an inspector general with a dedicated budget and a fixed term for the office holder, spelled out at the start. And he or she should not have to seek permission before launching a probe.

The inspector general should be empowered to investigate any and all complaints, anonymous or otherwise, and to provide audits of the various departments within the district. Likewise, a process should ideally be required that has the IG sharing results of founded reports. Responses from the appropriate supervisors to founded reports also must be published. Regular, quarterly summaries of work completed must also be shared so that taxpayers can see what’s being done on their behalf.

The best-practice rule of thumb for an Office of Inspector General is that it have a guaranteed budget that is 0.1 percent of the government’s overall budget.

If created properly, offices of inspectors general can provide taxpayers with some assurance that their governmental units are operating with professional, independent oversight and transparency.

What we don’t need is an empty office or a figurehead who’s not empowered to go where the facts lead. We need independent and fully funded oversight that will help the district serve taxpayers more efficiently.

Commissioners at this big and critical, but often-overlooked government unit should be praised for pursuing the creation of a watchdog who can provide professional oversight. The investment should provide strong returns for taxpayers. Here’s hoping they follow through and get someone in place soon.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director of the Better Government Association.

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