2019 General Excellence in Online Journalism, Small Newsroom finalist

The Better Government Association

About the Project

The Better Government Association produces investigative stories, databases and digital tools as part of its mission to provide greater transparency, efficiency and accountability in Illinois governments.

In 2018, we exposed issues of public concern from questionable actions of the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history to the unfair and distorted way Chicago handles its recycling and trash. We wrote about malfunctioning elevators in notorious public housing apartment buildings that often serve senior citizens and provided an interactive database detailing public salary spending for 1,800 government entities and tens of thousands of public employees in every corner of the state.

Here’s a breakdown of that work:

Ald. Ed Burke: For decades, the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history walked the fine line of being a power player on Chicago’s City Council and running his own private law firm handling property tax appeals for some of Chicago’s biggest landlords. Ald. Ed Burke was never charged with wrongdoing, but questions lingered and the FBI was investigating.

BGA reporter David Kidwell and WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos attacked the rumors by tracking campaign cash, assembling a massive list of Burke’s law clients and scrubbing every vote Burke cast going back nearly a decade. They found Burke behind the scenes often helped his law clients get city approvals but then tried to avoid the appearance of conflict by recusing himself from council votes. In all, Burke recused himself 464 times — dwarfing recusals by all other aldermen combined. Weeks after the story was published, federal prosecutors charged Burke with using his public position to personally profit.

Recycling: When BGA reporter Madison Hopkins checked Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to use private firms in Chicago’s recycling program worked, she discovered the city had almost no data to compare private and public haulers.

That was only the start of what she discovered.

Hopkins soon developed a database showing a disparity between how recycling was handled in some parts of the city. In two parts of town, recycling was more often dumped in landfills. And both those sections were served by Waste Management, which owns landfills and is paid for throwing recyclable materials away — a conflict of interest. The data also enabled Hopkins to determine Chicago has the lowest recycling rate of any major city in America.

Elevators: BGA reporter Alejandra Cancino and WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef used a massive database of city elevator inspection data to determine that Chicago Housing Authority residents were four times more likely to have to be rescued from elevators than anyone else in the city. The agency routinely failed to comply with laws requiring each of its elevators to undergo annual inspections. Even when those elevators were inspected, they failed more often than not.

Salary Database: After filing 900 public records requests for a breakdown of salaries of all employees from more than 1,800 units of government, the BGA shared that work with the world. The tool allows users to understand public salary spending by agency and department, and to put the information into context.