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Redefining the 'Chicago Way'

How did Mayor Emanuel do in Ethics & Transparency 101? BGA has the first term grade in Crain's one-year perspective.

By Andy Shaw/BGA President and CEO

April 30, 2012 1:44 PM

Mayor Rahm EmanuelMayor Rahm Emanuel likes adages that mix corny cliché with cold calculation, including this one on the economic meltdown he faced in 2009 as President Barack Obama's chief of staff: "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

That line also befits his new job running a city where the "Chicago way" is clearly the wrong way, and Mr. Emanuel is attacking the fifth floor's toxic culture of corruption and secrecy with the same mix of gusto and gonzo that characterized his Washington tenure.

Unlike his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, who tended to dismiss or downplay charges of waste, fraud and misconduct, Mr. Emanuel is acting quickly to confront those problems when they're made public by the Better Government Association and media partners, including Crain's. Andy Shaw Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association, based in Chicago.

He has followed up quickly on investigations targeting out-of-control credit card spending by city agencies; school administrators who cashed in unused sick days for big bucks; suburban scofflaws who owed Chicago millions of dollars in unpaid water bills; public officials who scammed government for personal gain; and lobbyists who employed tacky tactics to peddle influence.

It's a good start—but only a start. The real test of this City Hall's honesty, openness, transparency and accountability will come when Mr. Emanuel's own initiatives and staff actions—not his predecessor's—are challenged by the media, watchdog groups, community activists and political opponents. Here are some issues the BGA is watching:

World Business Chicago: The mayor relies heavily on World Business Chicago, a city-funded nonprofit that recently released Mr. Emanuel's economic plan. WBC operates in the shadows—it's not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and doesn't release minutes or agendas for its meetings, even though it operates in tandem with the mayor's economic council. WBC is reviewing its transparency policies, and the BGA is looking for more disclosure and transparency.

Infrastructure plans: The mayor wants to spend up to $7 billion to repair and modernize Chicago's infrastructure and create jobs. That means upgrading mass transit, making more public buildings energy-efficient and perhaps selling or leasing additional public assets. This is a process that cries out for openness, due diligence and taxpayer protection. Public-private partnerships sound cutting-edge, but no one wants another parking-meter fiasco.

Inspector general: One of the BGA's biggest concerns is the administration's adversarial approach to the city's inspector general. Mr. Emanuel's legal staff, like Mr. Daley's, is challenging the IG's request for certain city records, and this fight is headed to the Illinois Supreme Court. The BGA hopes the high court rules in the IG's favor, and that Mr. Emanuel realizes only a truly independent IG can keep City Hall in line. Pulling on a watchdog's leash doesn't help anyone, especially taxpayers.

Ethics task force: The mayor established a task force to conduct public hearings around the city and rewrite the city's limp ethics ordinance. The BGA has participated in these discussions and looks forward to the panel's report. Let's hope they draft a new ordinance with sharp teeth. Overall, Mr. Emanuel has cleared out some of the spidery ethical, administrative and operational cobwebs hanging over from his predecessor's regime and released infinitely more data than the previous administration. That's good. But we need to know more about how key decisions are made and who the mayor listens to and meets with. That, along with the "data dumps," is real transparency. So the cleanup job is off to a promising start, but the new mayor's work is just beginning. Or, to borrow another old adage, Mr. Emanuel's got to "keep on keepin' on."

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