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Time to send Flowers packing

Sunday, June 21, 2009
SouthtownStar
by SouthtownStar editorial staff

Reform of state government is an issue to which we are dedicated; some might even say we're obsessed. The list of things to be fixed in Illinois governance is long, depressing, and growing. Add this: We need ways to remove tainted public officials from office.

It's a miracle we're not still stuck with Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Thankfully the state Senate was able to drive him from office after corruption charges. But, there are more poisoned flowers among Illinois' vast fields of elected offices - or, in the latest case, Charles Flowers.

Flowers holds the elected position of Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education Superintendent. He has a record of financial abuse and misconduct dating to his days as board president at west suburban Maywood-Melrose Park District 89.

On Tuesday, the Cook County Board voted non-confidence in Flowers, in the face of months of reporting by this newspaper, and a state audit documenting his arrogant and profligate use of public funds. A criminal investigation is under way.

This should be enough to at least suspend an official, if not boot him entirely. But Illinois and Cook County have almost no way to remove suspect office holders; we'd not be surprised to see some insisting on being paid while behind bars.

Inevitably when the notion is raised of ousting people such as Flowers, responses include "innocent until proven guilty." Let's put that nonsense aside.

Innocence until guilt is proven is a vitally important premise in America. But it has nothing to do with employment, elected or otherwise. It solely means that before we take away a person's freedom, their guilt must be proved in court, to the very high standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

In the court of public opinion, or the determination of suitability for employment, this standard does not hold. Nor should it.

Anyone in a non-elected job facing the findings in the Flowers audit would have been fired by now. One questionable expense account is all it takes for most employees to lose their job. Elected officials who love to compare themselves to employees when seeking raises or benefits or perks barely acknowledge this when fighting to stay long after their competence or honesty are shown wanting.

Flowers should go. And there should be means to make his going less torturous and time-consuming.

Situations such as this show why Illinois should re-think the number of offices to which we elect people. As a starting point, electing people to do public service is unassailable, and this element of democracy has largely been brought to the world by America. It goes to the roots of the revolution that gave birth to our great country. And perhaps a return to those roots is in order.

"No taxation without representation" made sense 250 years ago, and does still. No processing of teaching certificates without representation? Maybe not. But that's the primary role of the office Flowers abuses.

That so many such arcane and narrow roles are elected offices is one reason voter turnout for them is minimal. Who among us can truly determine who is suited to such work? (We can determine it after audits and investigations and solid journalism have exposed the lack of it, but beforehand, no.)

Exploitive and abusive people such as Flowers move from one office to another. After his record at the park district (another that shouldn't require election) he was able to become education superintendent.

And while we decry low turnouts for offices such as county board, it's understandable why few vote for lesser offices. But that allows the likes of Flowers to hold such offices through influence within a political machine or among a few who want to enjoy the fruits of his abuse (as Flowers has rained public money on friends and relatives, for example.)

Illinois needs to set legislated standards below which elected office holders can be ousted by higher levels of government, or are automatically required to resign or at least be suspended. Or, despite its own limitations and potential for abuse due to the same low turnouts that bring us cads like Flowers, voters need to be able to recall office holders, using petition to force votes that could expel them from office.

Illinois became a national embarrassment in the months it took to force Blagojevich out. But that happened at the speed of light compared with what it usually takes to purge our governance of such people.

Maybe we need to have David Letterman mock Flowers until he just quits.



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