Kadner: Suburbs need an inspector general
By Phil Kadner email@example.com May 31, 2013 9:50PM
Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers, center, during a special Dolton Board meeting at the Dorchester Senior Center, 1515 E. 154th St., Dolton, Ill., on May 24, 2013, to discuss recent allegations of mismanagement by LL Care. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2013 6:40AM
Incompetence is costing taxpayers more money than corruption in some south suburbs, although it’s often difficult to tell where one begins and the other takes over.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Friday announced an inspector general for Dolton, which is close to financial collapse.
There is no agency that has oversight authority over municipalities unless there is some proof of unlawful conduct. By the time such evidence is available, it is often too late, and millions of dollars have disappeared without a paper trail or been otherwise misspent.
“It is incompetence,” said Dart, who has expanded the powers of the sheriff’s police to patrol the streets of Robbins, Dolton and a few other poor south suburbs. “It’s not like the people who live in these places can sell their stock portfolio and buy a second home in Florida or something. With property values declining, they can’t sell their homes and move.”
In some towns, sheriff’s police have discovered unprocessed rape kits in the police departments.
“These were women who came forward, subjected themselves to the indignities of the process hoping someone would be prosecuted, and police departments didn’t do their jobs,” Dart said.
“It’s gotten to the point that I’m wondering if its not a civil rights violation. Maybe we can bring a case to the federal courts. It’s just wrong, and sometimes a person has to do something about that even if it’s not covered by the normal authority of their office.”
Dart has become that person in Cook County, most notable stepping up when disinterred human remains were discovered in Burr Oak Cemetery near Alsip. The resulting scandal, revealing that people were often not buried in plots they had paid for or were buried on top of other bodies, created national headlines.
Poorer suburbs in the Southland have become a dumping ground for many of Chicago’s social problems. But they have neither the law enforcement, social service agencies or economic resources to deal with the exodus of low-income residents created by the gentrification of the city.
In addition, the loss of businesses has resulted in the south suburbs having some of the highest property tax rates in Illinois, forcing many mom-and-pop stores to shut down or move to Indiana, where the tax rates are significantly lower.
When Dart came to Robbins to announce that sheriff’s police would help with patrols, senior citizens complained that even when they identified bands of youths who were breaking into homes, police failed to make arrests.
The sheriff’s department has been helping out in Dolton as well, where new Mayor Riley Rogers contends that previous administrations overspent their annual budgets by millions of dollars. Where did all the money go?
“I don’t know,” Rogers told me. “We’re trying to figure that out.”
Despite the economic downturn of recent years, Dolton’s revenue has remained stable for the past four years, according to the village treasurer.
“You shouldn’t have to wait until a problem becomes this bad for someone to step up and say, ‘This has got to stop,’ ” Dart said. “And the reality is that the federal government has a lot more important things to do than investigate every complaint about financial mismanagement in a tiny suburb.
“That’s why I’m hoping this idea of an inspector general will be adopted by some of these suburbs,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can in Dolton, and we’re going to blitz that place with information to let residents know how to contact us if they suspect illegal or unethical behavior on the part of their officials.
“But this is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. And if I can be part of the solution, if my office can provide some leadership, than I’m happy to do it.”
Part of the problem is that municipal officials are often reluctant to ask for help, viewing it as outside interference. Some of that is about patronage, nepotism and sweetheart deals for friends and family members doing business with the town.
While even the hint of such activities in Chicago generates major newspaper headlines and stories on the 10 o’clock news, it takes really major graft for a small suburb to attract that sort of attention.
How many people notice, or care, when Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg receives a $240,000 gift as he retires as superintendent in Harvey School District 152, where he has controlled the school board and key administrative appointments?
Is it illegal? No. Is it wrong? Sure, it is.
In theory, informed voters would act as watchdogs on their governments and blow the whistle when elected leaders abuse their power. But in many of the poorer south suburbs, few people have the wherewithal to oversee budgets, and those that ask tough questions can find themselves or their families harassed.
A mayor willing to use the police for harassment and his personal motives can be much more dangerous to residents than a governor who puts a “pay for play” sign on his office door. People often feel intimidated and with good reason.
But beyond the petty greed, larceny and arrogance, there’s often simply a lack of knowledge about how to make things better in many poor south suburbs.
I have advocated in the past for some sort of sharing arrangement, where upscale communities such as Tinley Park and Orland Park would share their economic expertise with those that don’t have access to professional management or financial experts.
Cook County government could do more to assert its authority because many poorer towns rely on financial aid from the county. While Dart has been an activist, county board President Toni Preckwinkle ought to be doing more to assist communities that have been on the verge of financial collapse for decades.
Cook County’s assistance is most needed in some struggling Southland suburbs. Among Dart, Preckwinkle, and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez there should be enough resources to stop some of these problems before they become news headlines.
The problem is it’s not a sexy issue like gun control. But it’s more important. It can change lives. Give people hope. At the very least, let folks know that someone cares.
If the state, county and city governments have inspector generals as watchdogs, it’s time the suburbs do as well.