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Reform spotlight doing some good

Updated: March 18, 2013 6:39AM



British philosopher Edmund Burke warned in 1790 that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” and Spanish-born humanist George Santayana parsed the admonition in this more widely quoted 1918 iteration: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Either way, the message is relevant, and that’s why watchdog groups like the Better Government Association, which investigates public officials and recommends policy changes in the here and now, should look back periodically to see if the problems we identified are persisting, or the reforms we pushed are taking root.

So from time to time we’ll be circling back to previous BGA investigations to see if, and how, government responded.

The findings in this first “Rewind” column are mixed:

† Between 2006 and 2011, Chicago’s public schools paid out more than $225 million to departing employees for their unused sick days. At the same time CPS was draining reserves, raising property taxes and crying poor. Shortly after the BGA revealed the staggering financial impact of the payout policy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked school board ended the perk for the system’s non-union employees. CPS also negotiated it out of the new teachers’ contract. Employees are allowed to keep what they’ve already banked but can’t accumulate more days, which will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

† Between 2007 and 2010 the Cook County Health and Hospital System spent roughly $40 million a year in overtime for nurses. In 2011, county officials told the BGA and Crain’s Chicago Business they knew it was a problem but blamed the runaway OT on their inability to hire more staff. Unfortunately, the figure is still about $40 million, and former CEO William Foley’s pledge to rein in costs with a new time-keeping system hasn’t been fulfilled.

† The Garfield Park Gymnasium on Chicago’s West Side has been a safe haven for thousands of kids over the years. But the place was closed for nearly a full year after a flood destroyed the gym’s wood floor in 2010. In 2011 the BGA and FOX 32 began raising questions about the Chicago Park District’s delay in repairing the gym. Soon after, a new rubber floor was installed and the gym re-opened to the public.

† For several years employees of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown who wanted to wear jeans to work had to contribute cash to what Brown claimed was an office “charity fund.” But the BGA and FOX reported in 2010 that thousands of dollars in the “Jeans Day” fund were unaccounted for, and later that year Brown canceled the program. She also recently ended the practice of accepting campaign contributions from her staffers.

So let’s give Brown, CPS and the park district credit for reforming bad policies and practices after they were made public. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

As for the hospital system, enough is enough. We understand it’s a 24/7 operation with overtime issues, but where’s the efficiency study?

So that’s our first “Rewind” column, and I trust that Edmund Burke and George Santayana would approve.

Because most of the bad government behavior we discover should never be repeated. Which means we can’t report on it and then forget it.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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