Public Watchdog.org

The Tribune Nails It!

02.18.09

This past Sunday (Feb. 15), the Chicago Tribune published one of its finest editorials in recent memory, “State of Corruption,” in which it correctly blamed us – the people of the State of Illinois – for much of our state’s culture of corruption and political sleaze.

The Tribune noted that all of us ordinary citizens “haven’t asked enough integrity from our public officials, from our laws…from the people paid to enforce them…[and] from ourselves.”  Instead, “[w]e’ve surrendered too much of government in Illinois – too much of our responsibility – to crooks and opportunists.”

We here at PublicWatchdog applaud the Tribune for having the courage to speak that directly, that candidly, and that critically to its own readers for tolerating corruption, instead of indicting only those who actually practice corruption and reap its benefits.  

The kind of corruption that permeates government can take many forms. It can spring from an officials’ power to give out jobs, to issue contracts, to approve zoning changes, to promote or overcompensate certain employees and inflate pensions, or simply to do a “favor.”  As the Tribune puts it, we can’t change this culture until we recognize and appreciate that “we’ve all been cheated as much by favors as by fraud.”

Political campaign contributions are an obvious concern: “The bureaucrat who clouts a contract to his boss’ contributor repays a donation with our tax dollars.” And we’ve seen how even modest contributions can return huge dividends, with a few thousand dollars to a politician yielding millions of dollars in contracts.

And because we here at PublicWatchdog have opposed the “Culture of Secrecy” as an ongoing source of questionable practices by our local governments – especially the City of Park Ridge – we were gratified to hear that no less a corruption-buster than former federal prosecutor (of George Ryan, Robert Sorich, and other politicians and bureaucrats) Patrick Collins appears to share our view of government secrecy.

According to the Tribune, Collins has a simple test for government corruption: “If someone wants to conceal a government act, odds are it’s illicit.”  

We concur, which is why we have so frequently criticized the City’s regular retreats into closed sessions, often to discuss the acquisition of land that Mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark has been chasing for a new police station even though there’s no guaranty it will be built and no firm decision on how big it will be – because there’s no consensus on what the taxpayers can afford or are willing to pay.

While the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) permits such closed sessions, it does not require or even encourage them.  And, even more significantly, it doesn’t require that anything discussed in those closed sessions be kept secret – which is why Frimark and his Alderpuppets could muster only a weak and petty “condemnation” of Ald. Dave Schmidt (1st Ward) when Schmidt blew the whistle on Frimark’s under-the-radar pursuit of 720 Garden, and his outrageous demand for a new City appraisal for that property because the first one the City obtained set the purchase price too low!

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “[s]unlight is the best disinfectant” in advocating for openness and transparency in government and public policy.  That suggests that whatever public action goes on in the darkness – or even in the shade – should immediately become suspect for that reason alone.  And that goes for closed session meetings, secret deal-making, no-bid contracts, and anything else that involves the “classic” Chicago-style wink or nod.

The Tribune editorial also suggested that perhaps the highest price of corruption is the cynicism and apathy it breeds: “If everybody thinks the fix is in, then nobody believes. Nobody cares.”  Of course, that’s exactly what corrupt officials count on.  Convince the voters and taxpayers that changing the corrupt status quo is impossible, and they’ll throw up their hands and walk away.

The Tribune concludes its editorial on a hopeful note by observing that the ongoing success of the federal government in prosecuting public corruption, as well as the outrage over the conduct of George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, may have created a once-in-a-lifetime chance for real reform.  We sure hope so.

And for those among us who want to become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem, the following words of Teddy Roosevelt about the importance of honesty in our public officials should become our creed:

“Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest, we have no right to keep him in public life; it matters not how brilliant his capacity.”

6 comments so far

Do you have a link to the Tribune editorial?

By any chance did the editorial mention Frimark by name?

A2:03,

You asked so nicely, and I’m sorry it took me so long, but I have added a link to the Tribune Editorial in today’s post.

As you will see, the editorial did not mention Frimark by name. However, we knew the philosophical connection would not be lost on our intelligent and thoughtful readers.

Great TR quote. It’s about time the voters figured out that without HONEST AND TRANSPARENT GOVERNMENT they have no chance of knowing whether they’re getting “good” and “cost-effective” government – because they’re being lied to by the politicians and bureaucrats.

Dear Watchdogs: Thanks for the continuing commitment to respectful, open and honest debate. Can you or someone else comment on the allegation by Ald. Ryan in the papers this week that Ald. Schmidt exposed someone’s personnel file via his commitment to open discussion? I don;t seem to recall personnel issues being made public — property acquisition, yes, but someone’s personal details, no. I ask you because the newspapers won’t help sort this out. Thanks again.

Anonymous without tears on 02.20.09 8:24 am:

We are unaware of any instance when Ald. Schmidt “exposed someone’s personnel file” (as you put it); or disclosed “private personnel issues” (as Ald. Ryan put it).

We suggest that you pose that question directly to Ald. Ryan for clarification/explanation of his comment, as well as on what basis he called it “illegal”? He can be reached by e-mail at: bibandrobert@comcast.net

And if you do communicate with him, tell him we’d be happy to print his response.

Mayor Howard had better hope that Park Ridge voters aren’t hung up on honesty.



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