Better Government Association's growth and growing pains under Andy Shaw

June 7, 2012

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Andy Shaw, at his desk at the Better Government Association, three years in to his new career.

It's been three years since veteran Chicago TV reporter Andy Shaw came out of a brief retirement to lead the Better Government Association.

The organization has a storied past, beginning in 1923 when it targeted the mob-controlled city hall. By the time Shaw took over, the BGA was tiny, with little funding.

It now has a much larger staff, and a list of media outlets that routinely team up with BGA investigators. This has led to growing influence, and some growing pains.

Media exposure

Andy Shaw is everywhere. He appears on TV stations like WGN to talk about BGA investigations, like one on a free-spending suburban mayor, Country Club Hills' Dwight Welch.

"He needs some sort of a slap upside the head to get back to reality," Shaw said in the broadcast.

Shaw is also a go-to guy for reporters looking for quick sound bites on government corruption.

"Stop the cronyism, the nepotism, the patronage," he said in a 2010 story that aired on WBEZ.

And on a WBBM radio segment called Watchdog Wednesday, he acts as an analyst on all things political.

"Well, Kris, I think the teachers are very serious," he told the host recently when asked about Chicago Teachers Union strike threats.

Help wanted

Shaw became BGA executive director in June of 2009. His title is now president and CEO.

He didn't follow the formal hiring process. Before he even applied, the Better Government Association had already picked a handful of finalists. Then, Dave Lundy, the head of the BGA board at the time, got a phone call.

"One morning at about 7:45, I get a call from Andy," Lundy recalled. "And he...said, 'Dave, how come you haven't talked to me about the BGA job?' And my response to him was, 'Andy, the organization has a budget less than your last salary. I didn't think you'd be interested.'"

Shaw was interested, but there were details to work out. Roderic Heard led that 2009 selection committee. He's now the BGA chair.

"He was asking a little bit more money - actually, he was asking a lot more money  - than we were at that point offering or that [previous executive director] Jay Stewart had earned," Heard said. "But we figured...every once in a while you have to make a leap of faith."

(Shaw ended up making $156,000 in 2010, his first full year on the job.)

The BGA wanted to grow, and they hired someone they believed could make it happen, even though he lacked experience in management, in non-profits and in fundraising. The bet seems to have paid off.

Rapid growth

In the year before Shaw took over, public records show the BGA raised about $330,000. Last year, according to preliminary numbers from the BGA, it topped $2 million.

Lundy, who's no longer on the BGA board, said Shaw put his reporter's rolodex to expert use, chatting-up bigwigs all over town.

"Andy is a man of boundless energy who does not take no for an answer," Lundy said. "Everybody took his calls. And nobody wanted to say, 'No.'"

"More often than not, Andy would go out to lunch with someone, and come back with a very large check," said Rita McLennon, the chief operating officer under Shaw. She also left the BGA recently.

Those checks have made possible a list of accomplishments Shaw is eager to tout.

Before he arrived the BGA had two full-time staff members. It now has a dozen. The group is holding public meetings to train people it calls "citizen watchdogs." It increased the frequency of joint-reporting partnerships with news organizations. And the BGA has scheduled recurring appearances for Shaw on TV and radio stations, including WBEZ.

Cindi Canary led the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform until last year and now heads Mayor Rahm Emanuel's ethics task force.

"[Shaw] has hired some of the most talented journalists out there," Canary said. "As news organizations are shrinking, he's putting them on the payroll."

Canary said the BGA is kind of like a mini-wire service for good government reporting.

Though the stories have varying value to the public.

"You know, some of them certainly more in the variety of 'Joe Schmo ripped off the public payroll because he went to the movies today,'" Canary said. "Some of them have a lot more texture, and suggest a bigger story."

Picking the targets

Lost in the context of these investigations, according to Chicago community activist Mark Allen, is that some BGA targets were just taking advantage of long-accepted perks of government work.

One example, Allen said, is the highly regarded former Chicago Housing Authority CEO, Lewis Jordan, who resigned after the BGA exposed his use of an agency credit card.

"[BGA targets'] professionalism is sacrificed and their careers are sacrificed as an individual, but what [the BGA] really were trying to do was institute change in a system, and that could be done through public policy, it could be done administratively," Allen said. "That could be done without sacrificing people in their jobs like they did with Lewis Jordan."

Still, that investigation was followed by a policy change: Mayor Emanuel tore up hundreds of city credit cards.

Another policy win for Shaw came just last month, as state lawmakers voted to kill their own power to hand out university scholarships.

Canary, though, cautioned that the BGA's attempt to have a dual reporting-advocate role is a tricky one when you want a seat at the policy table.

"The watchdog, just like the journalist, tends to tee people off," she said.

Berrios brouhaha

You're bound to make enemies in this business, and one of them, for Shaw, is Joe Berrios, the Democratic Cook County assessor.

In 2010, Shaw wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune harshly criticizing Berrios for ethics issues. That same column said voters would be well-served by having an independent challenger, Forrest Claypool, on the ballot against Berrios.

Shaw all-but endorsed Claypool, and his language skirted the political line that this kind of non-profit is prohibited from crossing. Shaw now said he was "probably a little bit naïve then about the hard line you have to stay on the good side of."

Berrios later filed a complaint with the IRS, and remains peeved at Shaw and the BGA two years later.

"They are supposed to be out there working for better government, which - since Andy Shaw has gotten there, the basic thing he's done is raise a lot of money for them," Berrios said. "But - you know - what has he really done to change government? I think he's more on TV now, today, than he ever was when he was a reporter."

'The Andy Government Association'

In Shaw's frequent media appearances, he's also talked up his makeover of the BGA, and talked-down the condition of the organization he inherited. That led to hurt feelings, with some believing Shaw was dismissing past successes while claiming a bit too much personal credit for its recent strength.

Said one BGA insider: "Andy often had to be reminded that it wasn't the Andy Government Association." Shaw acknowledges he'd been insensitive.

"There were times in the first year when I thought I was out there by myself, and I probably acted a little bit like the lone wolf who's got to do it all alone," Shaw said. "And that's unfortunate because that was never the case. But those were tough days. Building it was not an easy process. And so, if it looked too much like 'The Andy Show' I apologize to anyone I offended and I'm sure I offended some folks."

In an interview last week for this story, Shaw noticeably used "I" a lot less, and "we" a lot more. He said a pair of non-profit professionals was brought on to help him through administrative and management "speed bumps."

But some potholes remain.

Question of sustainability

Another BGA insider claims there has been "too much [growth], too fast, without [detailed] long-term planning." This insider doesn't know if it's because Shaw is an "optimist, an egotist or whatever, he just believes people will support him."

At a meeting last month, Shaw told the BGA board he had a $300,000 hole to make up in the budget, after a gift from a Chicago philanthropist was not renewed.

Still, he will have plenty of free airtime to remind potential contributors all about the BGA, as he continues to make the rounds of Chicago's media.