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Editorial: The 'Ed Burke Effect' washes over the water district: Cue Cook County's inspector general

Monday, April 22, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board


The 'Ed Burke Effect' washes over the water district: Cue Cook County's inspector general

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.


For many years the majority of commissioners at a low-profile, Chicago-based government avoid calls to have an inspector general keep tabs on their $1 billion-a-year operation. Then in 2019, the Edward Burke scandal rivets the metropolitan area. Furious voters demand reforms at City Hall. En route to being elected mayor, a former federal prosecutor predicts that her ex-colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice soon will drop more criminal charges on Chicago politicians. And, last Thursday, the nine commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District unanimously agree to hire Cook County’s inspector general to perform that anti-corruption function for the MWRD too.

Maybe this timing is a coincidence. But the 9-0 vote suggests that with metro Chicagoans increasingly intolerant of public servants who serve themselves first, even the commissioners who want to keep the MWRD a bastion of crony politics also want to be on the right side of history.

If, as expected, the Cook County Board on Thursday signs on to the intergovernmental agreement the MWRD board has approved, the water district will pay up to $600,000 this year for investigative oversight from the staff of county IG Patrick Blanchard. His people will have office space at MWRD headquarters downtown but won’t report to that agency. Their stated mission is to “detect, deter and prevent corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination or misconduct” at the MWRD.

We won’t be startled if Blanchard’s team starts turning up problems at an agency with big construction contracts, a big payroll and big opportunities for corruption. The MWRD portfolio includes wastewater treatment, prevention of flooding, protecting the water quality of Lake Michigan and recovery of resources from sewage in an area roughly the shape of Cook County. But the agency also has long been a hotbed of Democratic politics and patronage.

Commissioner Debra Shore, truly a good-government Democrat (and thus a pariah to some of the party’s insiders), joined the board in 2006 and relentlessly pushed the IG issue to Thursday’s successful vote. Good for her. And by extension, good for the eight commissioners who joined in voting for formal scrutiny of their agency. Partnering with Cook County spares the MWRD the delay, startup costs and potential for bureaucratic slowdowns — real or mischievously manufactured — that the agency would invite if it fashioned its own IG apparatus from scratch.

Mr. Blanchard, we know you’re a busy fellow. On Thursday the County Board also is expected to authorize you to probe the peculiar conduct of the Jussie Smollett case by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and her staff.

So if you visit MWRD facilities and don’t want to waste valuable time explaining your presence, just murmur to everyone you meet, “Hi, I’m a precinct captain.” Then you can do as you wish.




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