Many local residents feel lost when it comes to their understanding of and involvement in municipal government. They feel like government decisions go over their heads. Or maybe they think something fishy is going on, and although they’re not quite sure how to investigate, they’re concerned enough to have that desire.
A group of nearly 50 Chicago-area residents decided to overcome that vulnerable feeling and learn how to take action by attending the first of two Better Government Association Citizen Watchdog Training sessions last week in Joliet.
Led by former ABC 7 political reporter and BGA Executive Director Andy Shaw, the training teaches average joes how to monitor local government, access public information and what to do with that information once they have it.
"If we keep a close eye on government, government will do a better job serving us,” BGA Citizen Watchdog Director Mary Frances O’Connor said.
The BGA's mission is to avoid the corruption tax, which Shaw describes as “what we pay when government is run to the benefit of the public official, not the public.”
“We’re not trying to turn you into Woodward and Bernstein," joked Shaw.
The BGA watchdog training seeks to empower citizens by showing them the tools they already have at their disposal and teaching them how to use them properly to hold government officials accountable for their actions.
In the first training held at Joliet Junior College, participants heard BGA Editor of Investigations Bob Herguth speak about the Open Meetings Act. Meanwhile, Illinois Policy Institute Director of Outreach Brian Costin, a Schaumburg resident, shared the story of how he became a government watchdog.
“It was basically me feeling out the process, mostly on my own, trying to figure out how things worked and stumbling upon certain things,” said Costin, who fought against red-light cameras in Schaumburg. After Costin's efforts, the town took the cameras down from select locations and also canceled plans for installing more.
Shaw, who reported on Chicago politics for nearly 40 years, said the mission of the non-partisan organization is simple.
“We are shining a light on government and we are holding public officials accountable," he said. "We are watching and we are becoming a force to be reckoned with. But we can’t do it alone."
To get other concerned citizens involved and to slowly change government, it takes citizens like Edmond Murphy, 66, a Chicago native who retired from his job in the reinsurance industry and moved to Shorewood with his wife a few years ago.
“I started gathering data, figuring [out] how I could give more information to the community I live in, an over-55 community here in Shorewood, just west of Joliet," he said.
Murphy describes his neighbors as a “gift to any district.” Since they are older than 55, don’t have children in local schools, and pay their property taxes, Murphy said the government “gets the benefit and has no residual thing to deliver [us] like education.”
“I felt that there was a need for people to know better what was going on in the community," Murphy said. "And I felt that the only way I could do it is to start digging it out.”
Downers Grove resident Karol Sole’s interest in being a government watchdog peaked when she decided to run for public office.
“I just want to learn about them, but as I learn, I get more and more appalled," she said.
Sole ran for DuPage County Board in 2008 and 2010, and in 2009, ran for Downers Grove Township highway commissioner. Although she wasn’t successfully elected to the County Board or the township position, she said the process has made her more interested in how the local government works.
“I still go unless I absolutely can’t make it. I still go to all their meetings," she said. "I’m still (sending Freedom of Information Act requests to) the township.”
Former Will County treasurer, School District 204 board member and Joliet resident Pat McGuire, 58, said being a government watchdog is a win-win for all.
According to him, when taxpayers know their rights, they know “who’s who and what’s what in government.”
“I learned as treasurer that as a result of my and my staff’s extensive education for taxpayers, we got fewer calls in the office for people seeking basic information,” said McGuire. “That enabled us to operate with a smaller staff and a smaller budget and allowed the treasurer’s staff members to use their tax knowledge to help residents with serious problems.”
McGuire said one of his top priorities as treasurer from 2006 to 2010, was to educate taxpayers on their tax bills by speaking to several groups personally.
“This is all about engaging your eyes and ears and brains in the process of watching and shining the light," said Shaw.
The Better Government Association is scheduled to hold its second Citizen Watchdog Training seminar, exploring the Freedom of Information Act, at 6 p.m. March 2 at Joliet Junior College.