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Guest Column: Time to demand more from elected leaders 

Rockford Register Star
By Lt. Governor Sheila Simon
July 6, 2011

Hot dogs, hamburgers and reform. That’s what I’m looking forward to this summer holiday season. The conviction of our former governor should cause us to fire up our demand for better government.

After Rod Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008, we got a first crack at reform. Now that he has been convicted on 17 criminal counts of corruption, we should get real change.

I served on the Illinois Reform Commission, which helped spur the first caps on campaign contributions in Illinois, new state purchasing rules and stronger Freedom of Information laws.

But many of our recommendations were too disruptive to politics-as-usual and shelved.

With Blagojevich facing prison time for his self-enrichment schemes, it is time to renew our efforts at reform.

The place to start is with the pocketbooks of our political leaders. If you hold elected office or make decisions on where tax dollars are spent, you should be required by law to report your sources of income.

That means your government salary and money from other jobs, government contracts, rental properties and market investments.

Residents need this information to judge for themselves whether elected officials are serving the public interest or self-interest. The ways our laws are written now, the public cannot tell.

The second step is to make sure the information is easy for people to find. It should go online in a searchable database like the one that Cook County Clerk David Orr recently launched and be available at no cost to watchdog groups and taxpayers.

Critics say this would scare too many people away from public service, that you shouldn’t hold the dogcatcher, the school board member and the governor to the same standard of scrutiny.

In Illinois, we have no shortage of people looking for government work or running for office. And if we scare off a few ethically skittish candidates, so be it.

Residents should know whether their dogcatcher is a double-dipper, if their school board member is a textbook consultant and — as we learned in our most recent courtroom drama — if the governor has income from people wanting to do business with the state.

Honest and open government should be a given for hardworking taxpayers anywhere in our country.

Unfortunately for us in Illinois, where two of our past three governors have been convicted of corruption charges in federal court, the public does not live with that expectation.

We have come to expect too little.

In the post-Blagojevich and post-Ryan era, we must demand more from our leaders. When we face difficult budgets and tough choices about how to use scarce tax money, we ought to expect fair dealing.

When I was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Jan. 10, I pledged to make government more accountable, accessible and transparent.

Within 10 days of taking my oath of office, I released a personal financial statement showing my and my husband’s net worth. Three months later, my senior staff provided public financial disclosure, beyond what is required by law.

These are easy steps to earn the public’s trust that we will provide honest services, but there is so much more to do.

A jury has decided that former Gov. Blagojevich deserved a guilty verdict.

The rest of us need to decide that we deserve better. We deserve regular access to detailed financial records of our elected officials.

That ought to start some fireworks.

Sheila Simon is the Illinois lieutenant governor and a former member of the Southern Illinois University School of Law faculty.