Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration narrowly avoided another embarrassing and unnecessary row with the media earlier this week when it finally agreed to allow reporters in to the historic Executive Mansion to view water damage caused by a leaky roof.
It’s not the first time the administration has balked at allowing reporters — and thereby the public — to view a potentially embarrassing situation.
Two years ago this summer Quinn came under fire for barring reporters from touring Illinois prisons — something that had not been a problem previously for the media, politicians and others. But amid a series of prison closures and criticism by a prison watchdog group, a Chicago public radio reporter was turned down when he asked to tour the minimum-security prison in Vienna to investigate conditions, including overcrowding. Other tour requests were denied, too, causing a backlash and accusations that the administration had something to hide.
Quinn cited security concerns, but by fall — as the chorus of criticism of the ban continued — the governor’s staff backed away from the outright ban and arranged some media tours.
It felt a bit like déjà vu recently when the administration declined requests from The State Journal-Register to view water damage on the third floor of the 159-year-old Executive Mansion in downtown Springfield.
The 44-year-old roof of the mansion is at the end of its life, and the past winter was brutal and unkind to the shingles.
Inspectors identified eight different leaks, which caused water damage on the third floor. Caretakers placed plastic on the floor to protect it and removed historic furniture to prevent damage from drips or splashing. The well-known Yates and Lincoln bedrooms show plaster damage, and wallpaper in some rooms is coming loose because of moisture.
In late May, when the leaks and resulting water damage came to light, officials in the Quinn administration said there were no plans to repair the leaks, even given the water damage to the interior. The work was to go on a deferred maintenance list.
Since then, however, the state approved spending up to $40,000 for roof repairs and patching to stop the leaks. That’s great news for the mansion, which has existed since before the Civil War and contains priceless antiques and works of art.
Sooner than later, though, the state must put a whole new roof on this taxpayer-funded property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The weather will continue to take its toll on the aging shingles, causing more leaks in the future and commanding costly, piecemeal emergency repairs.
An alarming 2010 State Journal-Register report detailed a host of other repairs the home needs. The sewer has backed up into the basement, paint is needed in places, the aging elevator needs replaced and the heating and air conditioning systems require upgrades.
Some would argue the state’s dire financial problems make it all but impossible to justify paying for deferred but much needed work right now. But there’s a limit to the number of temporary fixes caretakers can employ. As this page has asserted before, the state should be ashamed for neglecting the property.
More importantly, though, the Quinn administration appears to believe it can deflect criticism or hide potentially embarrassing problems simply by refusing to let people see for themselves, whether it’s water damage in a historic building or prisoners sleeping on cots in gymnasiums.
Not only is it in the public’s interest to see and understand situations caused by Illinois’ budget crisis, it is the public’s right to do so. In both cases — the mansion and the overcrowded prisons — Quinn’s people eventually came around to that idea, but only after some stalling.
As Quinn, his staff and lawmakers continue to grapple with the state’s budget crisis and the consequences of tightening its belt, the taxpayers who are being asked to share the burden and to accept certain solutions deserve as much transparency and accountability as possible.
—GateHouse News Service