It takes an engaged set of eyes and ears to keep up with the ins and outs of government. A citizen armed with a trained set of both, and the knowledge of what to look and listen for can help make public officials and the government they oversee more honest and effective.
This week, the Better Government Association, Chicago area’s most prominent citizen watchdog group, continued its ongoing campaign to provide fact-gathering tools to everyday resident wanting to make government more responsive. More than 30 people Monday night attended the first of two Citizen Watchdog Training programs being held in Austin.
Ron Reid wants to use the knowledge to help make Austin a better place to live and work. A founder of a new organization, the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, is focusing on safety, youth and families, among other areas.
“We want to make our voices heard and solve problems. It’s time to talk with the bosses,” Reid said.
His daughter, Ashley, a 15-year-old sophomore who is getting involved in student government at Phillips Exeter Academy, wants to look at issues from another approach: “I want to learn how to respond to students concerns.”
Becoming a watchdog is critical because better government is a right and a responsibility, said BGA’s Executive Director Andy Shaw. People should no longer tolerate the kind of waste, fraud and cronyism that have led to the loss of billions of taxpayer’s dollars.
“When citizens are being creative, aggressive and tenacious, (better government) can become a reality,” Shaw said. “We need government to serve us and spend money on the programs that people need, not the ones they want to support.”
Getting involved in change starts at the local level by watching and listening at CAPS meetings, local school council meetings and their aldermanic ward night meetings, Shaw said. Let the BGA know what’s going on, he added.
Two state laws are invaluable in helping make government more transparent.
Robert Herguth, the BGA’s director of investigation, supplied the basics about both. One tool is the Freedom of Information Act, an open government law under which citizens can access public documents and information about the workings of government. The second is the Open Meetings Act, which ensures that governmental bodies conduct the public’s business in public, Herguth said.
The next and final session – to be held Monday, Dec. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. – will concentrate on how citizens can prepare effective Freedom of Information Act requests, the ABC’s of reporting and journalism ethics, and how citizens can post information and tips on the BGA’s Watchdog Wall. The wall is an online hub for citizen watchdogs to learn about government in different communities.
The session is free and will again be held at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School, 5088 W. Jackson St.
Mary Frances O’Connor, the director of Citizen Watchdog Training, reminded participants that “everyone’s responsible for protecting their rights and instilling a faith back in government.”
Representatives from Raise Your Hands for Illinois Public Education, a newly-formed educational advocacy group, drove that point home.
Sonia Kwon and Claire Wapole spoke about how their coalition grew out of concerns that parents had about prospective cuts in school funding. The group began just this past spring and since then, has focused on seeking appropriate, equitable and sustainable funding for public education.
“Involvement also means educating yourself about the focus of your change,” Wapole said. “You will have a greater impact if you come across knowing something about the subject.”
Founded in 1923 by a group of citizens who wanted to fight the corruption that thrived in Chicago during Prohibition, the BGA and its media partners has conducted a number of probes that uncovered bribe-seeking inspectors and employees in the legendary “Mirage Tavern” investigation; fraud in the Chicago Public Schools system; lax security at O’Hare International Airport; corruption that ultimately led to the conviction of former Gov. George Ryan; and the bloated payroll at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, among other abuses.
Most recently, the BGA and Fox News Chicago found suspected widespread abuse in the RTA Senior Ride Free program.