Articles

Cook County, Ill., Puts Local Government Checkbook Online

With online check register, Cook County, Ill., residents can examine where tax dollars go in a government repeatedly tarnished by corruption.

by / February 16, 2010

From fraud and bribery to blurred ethical lines in government circles, Illinois has a political history smeared with corruption. It's a system that historically has been known more for trying to keep secrets than pushing for transparency.

But amid the cries from the public and the call from President Barack Obama, a Chicago native, for governments to be more open, local leaders have launched initiatives for citizens to see where exactly government money goes.

The latest effort comes from Cook County, Ill., which put its check register online at the county's Web site, www.cookcounty.gov, a move that will not only allow the public to track local tax dollars, but could create a wave of similar transparency measures across the state.

"It's ironic that Cook County, which has probably been the most criticized unit of local government for corruption, is among the first to take a major transparency step," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association. "This should be a model for other branches of local government."

The resolution was introduced in 2009 by Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, who has been a key proponent in the push for open government in the nation's second most populous county. This initiative bolsters other local measures that give the public online access to data such as meeting minutes, budget information and employment applications.

Following neighboring DuPage County, which started posting its checkbook online in 2009, this new online portal allows citizens to see every transaction that involves a payment by the county comptroller.

"Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent by their elected officials," said Kate Campaigne Piercy, director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute, "and transparency gives them that opportunity by serving as a sort of X-ray machine and allowing them to look into the details of the budget books and understand where their tax dollars go -- and to whom."

Tales of Corruption

But as a whole, Illinois is a "national laughingstock," according to Shaw.

In the past few decades, three Illinois governors have gone to prison, others have been entangled in legal trouble and impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges with federal trial date set for later this year. In Chicago, the largest city in Cook County, Peraica notes that 30 aldermen since the 1970s have been indicted and convicted of federal crimes such as income tax evasion, embezzlement, bribery, extortion, conspiracy and mail fraud.

Having spent nearly eight years on the county board, Peraica said he is "keenly aware of the perception and reality in the public's mind about the level of corruption and inefficiency that exists here."

With that knowledge, he embarked on a mission to put various pieces of government operations online. In 2005, he launched www.cookemployees.com, a searchable database that lists the names, titles, salaries and hire dates of employees and vendors of Cook County government.

"When we launched, the site crashed for the next three days," Peraica recalled. "The site couldn't handle the demand because there were so many people signing on. It caused a bit of a revolution in 2005."

Peraica promotes efforts for transparency so citizens can follow the money, and blow the whistle on political leaders linked to funds that have been diverted, stolen, misused or abused.

"We want to empower people who have that talent and knowledge base to use these systems to assist the law enforcement community," Peraica said, "and tie the loose ends into a campaign of public shame, used by authorities to investigate, prosecute and convict those who are stealing our money."

According to Shaw, the online check register represents a major step forward for "a county that has always been at the back of the line when it comes to transparency and reform."

Times of Change

In the wake of a stunning upset in this year's Cook County primary election, the online check register underscores the recent push for change in local politics.

On Feb. 2, Toni Reed Preckwinkle, an alderman for the 4th ward of Chicago defeated a well known incumbent, the county's clerk of the Circuit Court and the Water Reclamation District commissioner to win the Democratic nomination for county board president.

"After 18 years as a public servant, I think now is the time to make some changes," Preckwinkle told the Chicago Defender, which noted that a general election victory for Preckwinkle would make her the first elected female Cook County Board president.

Moving forward, Peraica wants to enhance transparency efforts even more. For instance, he plans to create a database that correlates political donations from vendors with county contracts so residents can compare figures. He also hopes to enforce the transparency of minority contracts to make sure companies are not just using minority companies for "window dressing."

Lame duck County Board President Todd Stroger launched a number of reform initiatives "in the face of blistering criticism for running an inept and corrupt administration," Shaw said. Initiatives such as the online check register were created to respond to enduring public demands for transparency, Shaw added, but they didn't come in time to save Stroger's besmirched political career.

"He will be out of office by the end of the year," Shaw said, "but his legacy will include efforts to get with the program even if they were a day late and a dollar short."

Russell Nichols Staff Writer