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, initially, went like this: 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 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 chair Chris Kennedy’s efforts to restore the university’s credibility and reputation following a devastating admissions scandal.
◆ Lake County state’s attorney Mike Nerheim’s attempt to reform a criminal justice system scandalized by wrongful convictions.
◆ The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund’s track record as one of the few well-run pension plans in the state.
◆ And Illinois comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s establishment of a digital “Warehouse” filled with financial information on thousands of local units of government.
This isn’t a blanket endorsement of the honorees — in fact, we’ve also criticized some of them in the past — but it’s important to recognize their commendable work.
And we’ve gotten a favorable response to our “Spotlight” series, especially when it’s accompanied by an acknowledgment that most government workers give us a day’s work for a day’s pay.
And that some give us a lot more.
Sadly, we got an unwelcome example of that reality a few days ago when our arctic winter weather contributed to a tragedy — the death of an Illinois Tollway employee who, along with a state trooper, was trying to assist the driver of a broken-down truck.
Vincent Petrella was killed and Trooper Douglas Balder seriously injured when another semi crashed into them Monday night along I-88 in west suburban Aurora.
The driver of that rig is now facing criminal charges, but that’s little comfort to the family of Petrella, 39, a veteran Tollway employee whose job included emergency assistance along the roadways.
Petrella grew up on Chicago’s Near West Side and moved to the northwest suburbs a few years ago, where he lived with his wife and two children, ages 4 and 7.
He’s the first Tollway employee killed on the job since 2003, and a stark reminder that public service is much more than the stereotype of high-level officials with fat salaries and generous benefits, and low-level bureaucrats who watch the clock as they push paper around.
Government includes jobs of critical importance — doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, lawyers, professors, technicians, clerks and researchers in our public hospitals, courtrooms, offices, schools, colleges and universities.
And jobs that are just plain dangerous — cops, firefighters, paramedics and emergency workers like Vincent Petrella.
Gov. Pat Quinn recognized Petrella in his State of the State address Wednesday 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 too are grateful for his service.
And we’ll be adding him to our “Good Government Spotlight” series.
Because he belongs there.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.