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Shaw: Thanks to some legislators who helped BGA serve as watchdog

Andy Shaw is president chief executive officer Better Government Association.

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

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Updated: October 19, 2013 7:19PM



One of the vexing dilemmas that confront full-service watchdog organizations such as the Better Government Association — where we investigate public officials, analyze public policy and then propose reform legislation — is that many of those we criticize are also part of the legislative process that determines the outcome of our proposals.

It’s an occupational hazard that’s unavoidable, and sometimes it derails our initiatives when lawmakers we’ve called out decide the best payback is to kill one of our bills or water it down.

But more often, thankfully, our reform allies on city, county, suburban and state governing bodies stay the course, put the objections aside and try to get the good government initiatives passed. That’s what makes our watchdog work so rewarding.

All of this came to mind recently when I saw a quote in a news story from Susan Garrett, the former state senator from Lake Forest, who was one of the BGA’s most consistent reform allies in Springfield.

She was decrying the legislative loopholes, contingencies and special favors that allow some corrupt public officials convicted of crimes to maintain all or some of their government pensions.

Garrett said anyone who is found guilty of public corruption at any level of government in Illinois should immediately lose their public pension. The BGA agrees.

For the record, Garrett gave up her Senate seat voluntarily last year to pursue other interests, but obviously she didn’t stray too far. She recently re-entered the reform world through a new door as board chair of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, one of the BGA’s allies.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is the organization that, along with CHANGE Illinois, led the successful fight in 2009 to put the first financial limits on contributions to Illinois political campaigns.

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case has thrown campaign finance laws up for grabs. Cindi Canary, longtime executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, has moved on, and her iconic mentor, Dawn Clark Netsch, died.

As a result, the organization is retooling, with Garrett and another former north suburban lawmaker, Beth Coulson, the board’s new vice chair, leading the charge.

Garrett and Coulson were among the legislators who understood that BGA criticism of their colleagues, and even them on occasion, and our focus on Springfield’s dystopian torpor, was intended to be instructive and constructive, not personal or vituperative.

Some of the other state legislators who deserve a shout-out for working with the BGA during the last session of the General Assembly, even if they didn’t always agree with us, include:

Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline), who acknowledged the importance of public safety and government accountability by sponsoring a bill to create a zero-tolerance alcohol impairment policy for on-duty police officers.

Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge), who took on conflicts of interest by sponsoring a bill that tightened financial disclosure laws.

Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), who understood the need for accountability in the criminal justice system by sponsoring a bill requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant to use information collected by drones.

And the coalition of legislators — Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), Reps. Mike Zalewski (D-Chicago) and Scott Drury (D-Highwood) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) — who recognized that the high cost of wrongful convictions, in financial and human terms, is an atrocity that can no longer be tolerated.

They spearheaded passage of a criminal justice reform bill that requires electronic recording of police interrogations in eight felony categories, not just homicide cases. That’s a major reform.

In earlier sessions, Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) led the fight to end the scandalized legislative scholarship program, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) supported measures that made it easier for residents to dissolve their antiquated townships, and Sens. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Pam Althoff (R-McHenry) took an interest in many of our reform initiatives.

They respected our jobs as watchdogs. And did their jobs as lawmakers.

That doesn’t eliminate the clash of conflicting agendas, but it does say we can disagree without necessarily being disagreeable.

And that’s progress.

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



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