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Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:01 am

Rearranging the desks

The CEC pushes government into the 20th century


The citizens panel gathered to find what it called opportunities for economy in the provision of public services in Springfield and Sangamon County. Upon investigation, they found that the cemetery management was antiquated, that budgeting and accounting needed improving, that information about public agencies ought to be collected and disseminated to the public that pays for them, that water and sewer infrastructure was inadequate, property assessments were inconsistent and that the city really needed to do something about garbage collection.

Findings of the Sangamon County Citizens Efficiency Commission in 2014? No, the results of a 1917 report on city and county administration, published as part of the Springfield Survey, a “study of social conditions in an American city” under the direction of the Russell Sage Foundation. Committees headed by the great and the good of Springfield collected data that informed reports on the state of recreation, housing charities, industrial conditions, public health, the correctional system and the care of what we call mentally ill and substance abusers as well as public administration.

Government efficiency was one of the core values of the original progressive reformers. They believed that “waste” – overstaffing with patronage hacks, loose procurement practices, casual oversight of public projects – caused money to leak from the machinery of local government like oil from an engine whose nuts are loose. The good citizens of the Springfield Survey had learned where the leaks were but they had no wrench. Instead, they relied on the good will of local officials and informed public opinion to make the former want to tighten up operations on behalf of the latter.

How well that worked can be gauged by the fact that, a century later, the Citizens Efficiency Commission made many of the same kinds of recommendations about public services in Not-Yet-Greater Springfield. For example, the CEC found that the building permitting process, which varies across the many small, local jurisdictions of Sangamon County, is so complex that it was impossible to understand it well enough to recommend ways it might be made to work better.

The CEC was conceived as a sort of Springfield Survey Lite, although more narrowly focused on government rather than social conditions, but otherwise is much like its predecessor in method and ambition. The effort attracted criticisms, some of which were aired in this paper. Not diverse enough. Too timid. A stalking horse for metropolitan or regional government. Lacking the strength to get and do what has to be done.

The criticism varied with people’s expectations of it, and the CEC itself sensibly kept its expectations modest. The panel did not waste time windmill-tilting, and did not consider fundamental structural changes, only the still-untapped possibilities of cooperation, coordination and service-sharing. The 23 recommendations that resulted from the commission’s first sessions are well-informed, doable and needed. The panel was careful to confine itself to questions of means, not ends – rearranging the desks, in effect. If the commission attempted little, what it did attempt it did well. If the only result to date is a bunch of officials sitting around a table, talking about how they will make things better – one of these days – well, that might well be all that is possible.

Any handyman knows how hard it is to fix anything that’s already been fixed many times before. Townships are an absurdity in an urban county like Sangamon, but of course Sangamon wasn’t urban when townships were established under the 1848 state constitution. The innovation reflected the influence of immigrants from the Northeast U.S. who yearned to run their new state as they had run their old ones, and they saw townships as providing more accountability and citizen control over the expenditure of public money. Once they got the right to divide counties into townships, most Illinois counties did, creating more than 1,400 of them.

Today? What was intended in the 1850s to enhance local government only confuses it. The CEC concluded that Sangamon County townships should simply not fund the redundant post of Township Tax Collector and let the county do their job through an intergovernmental agreement with the Sangamon County Treasurer’s/Capital Township Collector’s office. (That can be done by administrative fiat; abolition requires referendum approval.) If that will reform local government only the way your kitchen is reformed when you replace your old fridge, well, it will still be cheaper to run, even if what you really need is another bedroom for the kids.  

So the CEC as currently conceived is not pointless, even if it can only do what local officials would have done anyway if they ever bothered to think about it. One can always hope for more from such bodies; hoping in the face of contrary reality has been the reformers’ creed in Illinois for nearly two centuries now. But it would be pointless to complain that they do not urge local governments in the capital to use “people budgeting,” or real-time demand pricing for parking spaces, or watershed reconstruction to reduce flooding, or public agency vs. private-sector company competition for contracts to lower costs. That wouldn’t work in a county where agency after agency doesn’t even keep track of its own paperwork.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com


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