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A welcome tool for open government

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Daily Herald
by Daily Herald Editorial Board

The new website on lobbying announced by the Cook County clerk's office Tuesday will not by itself eliminate the influence of moneyed interests on a county government with a reputation for backroom deals.

But it's a nice start.

The website, cookcountyclerk.com/ethics/lobbyistsonline, known as Lobbyists Online, offers various bits of information about lobbying in Cook County. You can find out who is lobbying the county, who is being lobbied, what subject lobbyists are trying to influence and how much they are paid.

These can be useful pieces of information, and they're especially valuable for anyone with a deep interest in how county government works. In a news release accompanying Clerk David Orr's announcement of the website, David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform praised the site as "a model for other units of government" and said it allows the public to "see it all - the good, the bad and the mundane."

Actually, the site may be dominated by the latter, the mundane, for a random tour of the information can be more than a little confusing. You can, for instance, see that a certain lobbyist earned an amount of money for trying to influence a particular county official about a specific subject, from acquisitions to zoning.

By itself, that information may seem simply interesting. But in combination with other information you have - if, say, you want to see whether a county official's decision about a purchase or contract was influenced by a special interest - a quick trip to the website can give you insights to which you might otherwise be oblivious.

The greatest value of the site, though, is its move toward openness. The fact that it makes such information accessible is a signal of willingness to open its processes to the light of scrutiny by a government not known for such candor.

Announcing the site, Orr noted that Cook County lobbyists made more than $1.1 million in the first half of 2010, a figure slightly less than that for the last half of 2009 but still evidence of the value special interests see in trying to influence government. In such an environment, the public constantly must find ways to keep track of the pressures and influences on elected officials.

Lobbyists Online doesn't replace campaign finance reports, budgeting information or a host of other regular operational documents governments can and often do share. Indeed, residents interested in the management of Cook County government - or any municipal, school or other agency - should include all these in their review. But, especially given Cook County's reputation for intrigue and bloated spending, Orr's new public portal is a welcome tool for monitoring local government and one any agency or county that deals with lobbyists should consider.



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