I still can’t get my arms around the improbability — some would have called it an impossibility — of Chicago electing a mayor who served on the board of the Better Government Association.
The BGA has tangled with Chicago mayors for nearly a century, beginning with Capone-era confederate William “Big Bill” Thompson in 1923, over the good government principles of honesty, integrity, fairness, accountability, transparency and efficiency.
Sadly, those taxpayer-friendly tenets are antithetical to machine politics, which empowers and enriches elected officials who trade padded government contracts for campaign cash, and keep a bloated work force relatively happy, and often willing to do political work, by offering generous enough salaries, benefits and perks to ensure their loyalty and servitude.
That’s an expensive proposition that says, basically, “taxpayers be damned.”
I knew from my years as a political reporter and then head of the BGA that Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, a prominent corporate attorney and outspoken good government advocate, was repelled by machine politics, and that’s why I recruited her for a spot on the BGA board in 2013.
Not surprisingly, she was an excellent board member: Principled, strong-willed and at times abrasive, but always in an effort to make us a better organization that lives up to its name and mission.
Lightfoot left the BGA board in 2015 to concentrate on police reform efforts, I retired as president and CEO last year, and what a difference a year makes!
I’m quietly continuing my good government reform activities, while Lightfoot — voila! — is about to take over the mayor’s office on the 5th floor of City Hall after a victory few would have predicted earlier this year.
I’m thrilled, and I wish her the best. But as she puts together a new administration to confront the city’s myriad challenges — massive budget shortfalls, onerous pension obligations, struggling neighborhoods rife with violence and poverty, and a steady population decline — it’s also important that she remember her commitment to the good government reform principles that attracted her to the BGA board, facilitated her election and remain vital to Chicago’s future.
Here are a few initiatives she and her transition team should be considering prior to her inauguration on May 20:
- Evaluating city programs and services, and City Council committees, to ascertain what’s absolutely necessary and affordable, and what could be scaled back, phased out or merged with so-called Sister Agencies and their boards — CTA, CHA, Park District and Public Building Commission — or even Cook County government, to minimize duplication and excess, and achieve an economy of scale.
- Reducing the size of the City Council and making alderman a full-time job by banning secondary employment or at least second jobs that affect city tax dollars, programs or services.
- Imposing term limits on local elected officials.
- Ending or at least limiting aldermanic “prerogative” — absolute control over zoning, permitting and development in their wards.
- Folding the functions of city treasurer and clerk into city government, or at least combining the two elected offices into one.
- Extending the authority of the inspector general to investigate and audit aldermanic committees and staffs.
That’s a start, and some of those reform are no-brainers — obvious and relatively easy to implement quickly. Others are more challenging and complicated multi-year initiatives that require collaboration with the City Council or legislation in Springfield.
That can be tricky because it requires the kinds of trade-offs and quid pro quos that historically undermine and dilute reform.
But here’s the good news: Chicago voters gave Lightfoot a mandate for change in a landslide election with a clear message: Business as usual and the status quo are unacceptable.
Thousands of loyal Chicagoans stand ready, willing and able to support Lightfoot as she reinvents Chicago government.
One of my heroes, iconic city father Daniel Burnham, who protected our cherished lakefront from profiteers more than a century ago, would be proud.
He didn’t waste his moment, and we can’t let former BGA board member Lori Lightfoot waste hers.
Andy Shaw is former president & CEO of the Better Government Association and former ABC 7 political reporter. He is on the board of the CHANGE Illinois good government reform organization and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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