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Shaw: Sometimes government gets it right

Updated: March 10, 2014 6:38AM



One of the questions I fielded most often when I joined the Better Government Association in 2009 was this one: Why don’t you highlight more examples of good government — public officials and agencies that deliver services honestly, transparently and efficiently?

My answer was: We pay for good government with our tax dollars — it’s what we deserve and have a right to expect — so there’s no reason to highlight it.

I argued that our job as anti-corruption watchdogs is to shine a light on bad government when it wastes, abuses and misuses our tax dollars and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

But I eventually realized that another smart way to fight bad policies and practices, in addition to calling them out and suggesting reforms, might be to showcase good ones — to reinforce best practices and hold them up as examples for others to follow.

So our BGA policy team developed a new feature called “Good Government Spotlight,” which launched a year ago with an appeal to officials around the state to submit their agency’s credentials for consideration.

Since then we’ve featured:

University of Illinois Board of Trustees chairman Chris Kennedy’s efforts to restore the university’s credibility and reputation following a devastating admissions scandal.

The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund’s track record as one of the few well-run pension plans in the state.

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s establishment of a digital “warehouse” filled with financial information on thousands of local units of government.

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim’s attempt to reform a criminal justice system scandalized by wrongful convictions.

This isn’t a blanket endorsement of the honorees — we’ve also criticized some of them in the past — but it’s important to recognize their commendable work. We’ve received favorable response to our “Spotlight” series, especially when it’s accompanied by an acknowledgment that most public employees give us a day’s work for a day’s pay.

And some give a lot more. We got a sad reminder of that recently when our arctic winter contributed to a tragedy — the death of an Illinois Toll Highway Authority employee, who with a state trooper was trying to help the driver of a broken-down semi truck.

Vincent Petrella was killed and Trooper Douglas Balder seriously injured when another semi crashed into them Jan. 27 along Interstate 88 near Aurora. The driver of that truck faces criminal charges, but that’s little comfort to the family of Petrella, 39, a veteran tollway worker whose job included emergency assistance along the toll roads.

Petrella, who leaves behind a wife and two young children, is the first tollway authority employee killed on the job since 2003. He’s an example that public service is more than the stereotypes of top officials with fat salaries and generous benefits and low-level bureaucrats who watch the clock as they push paper around.

Government includes many jobs of critical importance — doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, lawyers, managers, technicians and researchers in our public hospitals, colleges and universities. And jobs that are dangerous — police, firefighters, paramedics and emergency workers such as Petrella.

Gov. Pat Quinn recognized Petrella in his State of the State address with a moment of silence and these words — “in Illinois, we honor our heroes and are grateful for their service.”

All of us at the BGA offer Petrella’s family our deepest sympathy. We also are grateful for his service.

And we’ll be adding him to our “Good Government Spotlight” series. Because he belongs there. Even posthumously.

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.



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