Guest view: Illinois deserves better when it comes to fighting public corruption

September 14, 2013 

Illinois has the unfortunate reputation of being one of the most corrupt states in the country. Four of the past seven governors have ended up in prison. And a recent University of Illinois at Chicago study found that since 1976, Illinois had the third-most public corruption convictions in the country.

Recently, Mercer County Treasurer Mike Bertelsen was arrested and charged with theft of $13,000 in county money. These charges come less than a year after Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell was sentenced to almost 20 years in prison for stealing more than $53 million from the city.

Illinois deserves better. But unfortunately a recent study by the Illinois Policy Institute found most counties are severely deficient when it comes to posting basic information online. And in the age of iPads, iPhones and Kindles, the survey found that almost one-quarter of Illinois counties don't even have websites.

In Bond and Jersey counties, residents can't find any employee compensation information on their county websites, even though counties are required by state law to post information when employees make more than $75,000 in total compensation in a year. Only Macoupin County posts employee salaries for the past five years, but they still don't post other compensation such as pension and health care benefits.

Measured against a 10-Point Transparency Checklist of basic public records -- such as budgets, audits and expenditures to third parties -- the average county transparency score was 25 percent.

While many of the state's residents are left in the dark, a few counties in the area received passing grades on our audit. Madison County (81.6 percent), Macoupin County (76.4 percent) and St. Clair County (60.4 percent) all received passing grades. Unfortunately, Bond County (2.5 percent), Jersey County (1.1 percent) and Monroe County (24.4 percent) still have a long way to go.

Better online transparency of how money flows through government would go a long way in deterring bad behavior before it happens and shining a light on misuse, should it occur. While increasing online transparency isn't a panacea to fix all of Illinois' corruption woes, it should be a top priority for those who want to address the issue.

Unfortunately, many local governments in Illinois wait until a corruption scandal hits before taking a serious look at the importance of online transparency.

Lack of online transparency gave criminals such as Dixon's Crundwell the opportunity to engage in corruption without being detected. Other local governments in Illinois shouldn't make the same mistake.

Every government entity in Illinois should be posting basic financial documents online, not only as a corruption safeguard but also so residents actively can participate in democracy from an informed basis.

Citizens are fed up with Illinois' culture of corruption. We all can help by urging elected officials on the state and local level to adopt comprehensive online transparency standards that promote a culture of transparency and accountability.

Brian Costin is director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

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