Politics & Policy

Government Accountability Starts with Local Action

Kirk Allen (left) and John Kraft on Chicago Tonight (WTTW)
Two concerned citizens helped clean up Illinois’s government and started a movement. The country could use more like them.

In 2010, emergency worker Kirk Allen responded to a call that inspired him to hold government officials accountable: An eleven-day-old baby had stopped breathing, and it was apparent that the 911 dispatcher had failed to provide medical instructions to the infant’s guardian. When Allen questioned the county director of dispatchers, he was assured that all dispatchers were certified, and that this had been an isolated incident. He suspected the director was lying, and filed a Freedom of Information Act request that revealed that uncertified dispatchers had been present in Kansas Township, Illinois, for years.

“I figured that if they were going to lie to me about that, then what else are they going to lie about?” Allen recalls. It turns out that the 911 office was lying to the public about a lot. After more FOIA requests, Allen uncovered illegal spending in addition to the uncertified dispatchers.

The experience inspired Allen to co-found the Edgar County Watchdogs along with fellow Edgar County resident John Kraft, who was also frustrated with government officials. Since the small-town Illinoisans founded their group, they have forced out 185 public officials in the state, all of whom resigned or chose not to seek reelection. More impressive still, the pair has accomplished all of this without any funding, through the use of FOIA requests, pro se litigation, and comments at public government meetings.

Due to their exemplary achievements, Allen and Kraft won the State Policy Network’s 2016 Unsung Hero Award, a cash prize of $25,000 that is sponsored by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation. The award is part of the foundation’s citizenship program, “Lens of Liberty,” which encourages citizens to defend their rights and freedom.

Helen Krieble, president of the foundation, tells National Review that she was excited by the more than 30 nominations they received for the award. “The time is right,” she says, because “a Trump presidency has empowered people to hold government accountable.”

Krieble was most impressed with Allen and Kraft, whose project is particularly ambitious; throughout 2016 Edgar County Watchdogs has expanded dramatically, going first statewide and then national. Thus far, the group has trained 500 people; eventually, the two men hope their group will gain footholds in every state.

Edgar County Watchdogs is different from other good-governance organizations, which so often position themselves near state and federal legislatures. Allen and Kraft live in rural southern Illinois, over two hours from the Illinois capital, but both were angered by the lack of transparency among public officials and sought change. And while other such groups write articles, file a few FOIA requests, and move on to the next project, the Edgar County Watchdogs have a different formula: “Write about it and stick around until it gets fixed,” Kraft says. There are currently seven ongoing federal investigations that began as a result of their work.

‘If it makes you less free, you must do something about it.’

— Helen Krieble

In 2016, the pair’s website received 1.5 million hits, and their presence online has proven key to their success. By rallying the public to hold officials accountable, Kraft and Allen prompted four bills in the Illinois state legislature, all of which have become law. One bill granted county boards the power to remove members of Emergency Telephone System boards, as a result of Allen’s original crusade. “They have brought so many towns back to sensible, honest, approaches to ‘We the people,’” Krieble says.

Next year, Krieble hopes to dole out the $25,000 Unsung Hero Award in as many states as possible. The next Unsung Hero might not expel nearly 200 politicians from public office, but he or she must be committed to Krieble’s motto: “If it makes you less free, you must do something about it.” As Kraft and Allen have shown, regular citizens have the power to preserve liberty in a time when government continues to expand and impose overbearing regulations on its citizenry — providing that they see fit to try.

Austin YackAustin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.

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