Over the years, as dozens of elected officials have been indicted and convicted, the voters of Illinois have been repeatedly reminded that in politics, money and favors often exchange hands with no oversight. The key players in these transactions are sometimes lobbyists hoping to influence public officials as they develop legislation and spend tax dollars.
As the elected official charged with maintaining Cook County lobbyist records, I believe it is time to shed more light on lobbyists' influence over County government.
Currently, lobbyists in Cook County file a report twice a year listing their clients, their compensation and their expenditures. These paper records are filed away in cabinets and only accessed by the occasional reporter flushing out a story. Even when reviewed, they fail to provide a complete picture as lobbyists are not required to disclose the specific legislation or contacts for which they have lobbied. We can change this.
With Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-10th District), I introduced the Lobbyist Sunshine Initiative, proposing half a dozen changes to the current ordinance. (Please see my press release and articles in the Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald.)
First, we will ask for more information from lobbyists, requiring them to file reports regarding the positions they have staked out: whom they have lobbied and when, and which contracts they are lobbying on. This information would be made available online in a searchable database, allowing citizens, journalists and politicians themselves to better understand the forces shaping the policies affecting the people of Cook County.
This innovation would be in keeping with recent technological advances made by my office, such as putting our genealogy records online. There is no reason why we cannot bring our lobbyist records into the 21st Century.
To add more muscle to our lobbyist regulations, we will also be bringing our penalties in line with the State of Illinois and requiring lobbyists to update registrations within 48 hours of each new contract they accept.
However, if we really want to build transparency within county government we must focus on the money that flows in and out of the county. To do so, lobbyist names and firms will be listed on requests for proposals and board agendas in advance of approving contracts.
We can also clamp down on the potential for quid pro quo corruption by implementing a revolving door ban, ensuring that county employees and elected officials are unable to lobby the county for a year after leaving public service.
I do not mean to vilify lobbyists, only the lack of transparency. We can and should do more to connect the dots between million dollar contracts and lobbyists who stand to profit from their approval. Implementing these reforms would eliminate some of those dark corners where the public's interest has a tendency to be forgotten.
Follow David Orr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cookcountyclerk