The real problem in the suburbs

Sure, there's corruption — but too many towns govern with a timid hand

It took a passel of professors to bring us the recent news that corruption doesn't stop at Chicago's city limits.

Dick Simpson, who, as a former Chicago alderman, should know corruption when he sees it, shared this flash with us when he co-wrote with University of Illinois at Chicago colleagues a supposedly stunning report: "Green Grass and Graft: Corruption in the Suburbs."

The public and the media generally focus on Chicago corruption, the authors said, but "tend to overlook the long and salient culture of corruption" in the suburbs. "Patronage, nepotism, cronyism, abuse of power and criminal activity flourish, sometimes for decades, in numerous city halls, police stations and special-purpose government agencies in suburbs …," the authors said. Why, it's even "endemic."

More than 60 suburbs "have corruption and blatant conflicts of interest." The authors continued: "More than 130 individuals have been convicted of corruption related schemes in the suburbs since the 1970s, including more than 100 public officials in the last two decades. Far from being an escape from the corrupt practices of the big, bad city, many of the suburbs seem determined to imitate them." Oh, dear.

If I may: The suggestion that the media are ignoring suburban corruption is a fabrication, especially when just about all of the 81 footnote citations in the study are newspaper articles. As far as I can tell, the study brought no new cases to our attention.

And the idea that three score suburbs experienced allegations of or actual corruption in 40 years should not be all that stunning when the Chicago area is encumbered with 269 municipalities, 113 townships, 6 county governments and 558 special district authorities, including 306 public school districts, according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago.

One is tempted to observe that this is just another shot by urban snobs at the disgusting suburbs. But I'm more focused on something that I think is a bigger suburban problem: Apathetic, ineffective, timid or corpulent governance.

Historically, suburban boards and commissions have followed what they naively believe is a business model — efficient, effective, apolitical, noncontroversial. Truth is, they're not a business, but a system of self-government, subject to the typical conflicts, strains and demands of any democratic system. It's up to the elected boards and commissions to meet these challenges, and for many, they're not.

Take Bridgeview. Its taxpayers are in hock thanks to a 20,000-seat stadium built to accommodate Mayor Steve Landek's appetite. With Landek's other empire-building activities costing taxpayers more, Bridgeview residents properly can ask, "Who was watching the store?"

Dixon, Ill., isn't a Chicago suburb, but it illustrates the extreme result of municipal elected officials not watching the store. The town's ex-comptroller allegedly embezzled $53 million over the last 22 years when the annual budget is (it appears to be anyone's guess) $8 million to $20 million. How could anyone not notice for at least a decade?

In the Chicago area, why do 13 villages pay their managers salaries that top $200,000 a year? And why does my village, with its population of 33,000, have 23 employees making more than $100,000? Or 40 more that make between $80,000 and $100,000?

You'll find similar numbers for local governments by going to openthebooks.com. Or by checking Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' roster of shame (cookcountytreasurer.com) for an idea why Cook County local governments are at least $140 billion in debt. Or, if you haven't had enough, explore the Taxpayers United of America website.

Quickly, I'll say that most local public employees are dedicated, hardworking and capable. But the first job of members of those boards and commissions is to protect their constituents. They don't when their staffs or their local public employees unions cow them. They don't when they treat their staffs like buddies. They don't when they fail to post their budget in terms that everyone can understand. Or sketch the costs of their actions over the next 30 years. They don't when they hand out nearly automatic raises to staff that exceed anything that employees get in the private sector in tough economic times.

The good professors missed the point. The problem in the suburbs isn't so much that they're becoming more like Chicago when it comes to corruption. It's that their boards and commissions are becoming more like the rubber-stamp Chicago City Council.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune

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