Kadner: BGA out to train a watchdog army
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org September 25, 2013 9:48PM
Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, called for more attention on suburban governments during a meeting partially sponsored by the Franklin Park/Schiller Park Chamber of Commerce, in Rosemont. | Mark Lawton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2013 7:11AM
Free stuff is good. Free stuff that helps you protect your tax dollars and keeps politicians honest is even better.
On Oct. 21, the Better Government Association, led by former journalist Andy Shaw, will host a Citizens Watchdog Training session at the Orland Park Library, 14921 Ravinia Ave., from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
You don’t have to be an Orland Park resident to attend the event.
“No single organization or person can guarantee good government,” Shaw told me during a telephone conversation Wednesday.
He referred to Don Quixote’s quest to right all wrongs producing no results because he tilted at windmills on his own.
“Gen. (George) Patton, on the other hand, won real battles because he had an army. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” Shaw said. “We’re trying to train an army of watchdogs to protect our tax money and assure that people get the honest government they deserve.”
What I like about the BGA sessions is that they don’t focus on Washington, D.C., and Springfield politics.
They go down to the grassroots level, where an awful lot of money is spent and few media outlets pay attention. I’m talking about school boards, city councils, village boards and township boards.
The goal is to teach the average person how to keep an eye on government and find out what’s happening in his community.
The BGA offers basic training in things such as Illinois’ open meetings and freedom of information laws, valuable tools in the arsenal of investigative reporters.
“With news media operations cutting back, there are very few investigative journalists out to keep an eye on suburban governments,” Shaw said. “It’s more important than ever before that people become educated in how they can prevent and detect nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.”
Shaw spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics and got his training at the old City News Bureau in Chicago, where reporters were told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He later worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, WMAQ-TV and WLS-TV.
He left reporting to “recharge his batteries” after covering Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and became the BGA’s executive director.
“Over the last four years, we’ve conducted 60 investigations that resulted in action, government employees being disciplined or fired,” he said of the BGA. “We’ve launched 250 investigations overall, and a lot of those were based on the tips we received from citizen watchdogs.”
Shaw estimates that the BGA has saved taxpayers about $50 million through the elimination of wasteful spending over the years.
As someone who has covered local government for more than 30 years, I’m always fascinated to see how citizens get all riled about national issues and corruption in state government but pay little attention to what’s going on in their back yards.
A village board meeting will typically attract only few residents. School board meetings will often have no citizen in attendance unless there’s a controversial decision being made.
Shaw noted how a Lyons Township school treasurer recently was charged with the theft of $1.5 million in public funds following a BGA probe of the office.
I have written in the past about the Bremen Township School Board, where a former board president tried to get his legal fees paid after suing the board.
While those meetings generated a lot of interest from local school boards, because the township treasurer invests their districts’ money, very few private citizens showed up.
Those township school board meetings typically have no public participation. Why? Well, local government can be pretty boring.
And most elected officials do their best to run meetings in a way that would confuse any taxpayer who wandered in hoping to figure out how his public officials are spending his tax money.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a mayor or school board president stop a meeting to say, “Let me explain what’s going on here to the folks in attendance who may not understand it.”
“We’ve trained 1,200 watchdogs through our sessions so far, but I wish we had 12,000 people out there keeping an eye on things,” Shaw said.
He said citizens always are welcome to report suspected wrongdoing to the BGA, and while not every allegation results in an investigation, every complaint is looked at.
I asked Shaw how he responds to people who say the system is corrupt, the politicians are all bad and they aren’t going to waste their time trying to change it.
“If you want to throw your hands up and say you can’t change the system or don’t care, don’t come,” Shaw said. “I’m not that cynical. I believe things can be changed for the better, and I think the BGA has done some of that.
“But you don’t score a touchdown on every play. The way I look at it is that maybe the ball was on the one-yard line when I got here, and we’re on the 10-yard line now. The goal is to get one first down. Then another and another, and maybe you eventually score a touchdown.
“I understand that the goal line looks a long way off from where we are at. But to make progress you have to keep pushing the ball up field, and that’s the only way we will get the sort of government we all want and deserve.
“People work hard to make a living and pay their taxes. When those dollars end up in the pockets of a public official instead of helping the public, they’re being cheated.”
For more information about the meeting, call Stephanie Simon at the BGA at (312) 821-9042.
Experts from the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis will teach the watchdog training session, and members of the BGA investigative unit will talk to anyone with a concern.
It’s free. And the government needs more citizen watchdogs.