In this dystopian era of hyper-partisan politics, many of our elected leaders on both sides of the aisle share a common bane: Those pesky and intrusive watchdogs they grudgingly hired to keep them from breaking rules or laws.
At the Better Government Association we’ve watched that disquieting dynamic play out over and over.
From Congress to local school boards, public officials resist the bright light tough ethics watchdogs shine on them.
The latest evasive maneuver occurred last week when Congressional Republicans took a secret vote to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.
One of the alleged leaders of the misguided effort, according to Politico, was U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of DuPage County, whose $24,000 trip to Taiwan in 2011 was investigated by that office.
Fortunately, scathing media coverage, public outcry and a scolding Tweet from President-elect Donald Trump forced the House GOP to back down, but we’re expecting another assault on the ethics office when the media’s looking the other way.
So we’re counting on Congressman Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat with stellar reform credentials, to keep his eyes on the prize like he did last week.
“Our constituents deserve an efficient, effective and open government protected by independent investigations,” Quigley said. “We must continue to shine a light on the halls of our government so that we do not return to darker days plagued by unreported scandals and overlooked ethics issues that weaken our democratic institutions.”
Public outrage over the congressional ploy was palpable, but similar resistance to independent oversight is commonplace among state and local officials in both parties, and usually with much less fanfare.
- + Chicago Public Schools’ Inspector General Nicholas Schuler used the public comment section of a CPS Board meeting to complain that board members were stymying one of his investigations. Schuler’s attempt to pursue conflict of interest allegations involving a top CPS attorney was blocked when the board claimed attorney-client privilege.
- City of Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson faced a similar legal impediment when he tried to investigate a controversial contract with one of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former aides.
- When Ferguson’s oversight authority was extended to the Chicago City Council last year, aldermen refused to let him to audit their offices or committees, which means at least $100 million of your tax dollars are shielded from independent scrutiny every year.
- State of Illinois IG’s face even more roadblocks, including transparency constraints, limits on their independence and enforcement power, and financial uncertainty.
- The board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, an agency with 2,000 employees and a $1 billion-plus budget, still won’t hire an internal watchdog, despite several BGA investigations that demonstrated the perils of inadequate oversight.
Bottom line: Every big government agency or department should have an internal watchdog, and not just to pacify voters, media critics and groups like the BGA.
We’re pleased that Republicans in Congress retreated from their ill-conceived plan to eliminate the ethics office. And if you contacted your legislators, thank you.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the home front.
It’s time for top officials in Chicago, the suburbs and Springfield to equip their internal watchdogs with the tools they need to bark loudly and bite when necessary.
But realistically, that will only happen if reform-minded citizens do some loud barking of their own.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.
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