By Robert Reed and Caitlin Kearney

When Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor, a mere two years or so ago, he enthusiastically supported the idea of an independent city inspector general—a watchdog that would investigate and help prosecute pay-rollers or vendors who stole from the public purse or gamed the system.

These days, however, Mayor Emanuel’s support of a crime-busting Inspector General is less avid, especially when you consider his administration’s continuing turf and budgetary battles with Joseph Ferguson, the current IG.

Yet even as the mayor cools to enhancing the IG’s authority, members of the Chicago City Council are warming to the idea. Recently, 20 aldermen co-sponsored a series of ordinances aimed at giving the IG the legal firepower necessary to do a more effective job, gain greater independence from the administration and fulfill the legislative intent of the IG’s office.

Introduced on May 8, these bills provide:

  • Subpoena enforcement. Using subpoena power for legal access to records, such as contracts, can often be the key to conducting a successful investigation. This ordinance gives the IG the right to enforce such subpoenas through the courts. Presently, the IG’s office must depend on the administration to support its requests for documentation. (After some lawsuit skirmishing between the IG and city legal staff the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city’s law department.) If the city’s corporation counsel chooses not to comply or has a conflict of interest, the decision can only be appealed to the mayor–giving Emanuel tremendous sway over who and what the IG can scrutinize.
  • Explicit auditing. Under this bill, the IG would have more targeted auditing authority and the ability to use audits to more closely review city programs. Such a law would have come in handy in July 2012, when Ald. Ed Burke (14th), head of the powerful finance committee, thwarted IG Ferguson’s request to review databases related to the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program. (Ultimately, those documents were handed over to the City Council’s IG.)
  • Independent budget. The city IG office would be guaranteed a basic operating budget and would be free to spend the money as it saw fit. Right now, the IG’s annual budget is subject to the mayor’s recommendations to the City Council’s budget committee, which can encroach on the IG’s independence.

All these ordinances are sponsored by and presented as a joint effort of the Progressive Coalition and the Paul Douglas Alliance, two reform groups that have surfaced within the 50-person council.

Right now, the ordinances are parked in the rules committee—which is seen by some skeptical aldermen as a place where good legislation often goes to languish or die.

(Another example: Doing time in the rules committee, headed by Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), is a bill seeking to clarify and reform the city’s services and asset privatization efforts—a measure the BGA would like to see debated and voted upon by the full council.)

Yes, we recognize the political reality that Mayor Emanuel holds a tight rein over proposed legislation and that the council tends to bend to his will.

But there have also been flashes of independence, so let’s hope these important IG bills don’t simply fade away.

Remember, mayoral candidate Emanuel vowed to give the IG virtually unrestricted access to city data and records.

By passing these IG ordinances, the City Council can help make his campaign pledge come true.

Robert Reed is the BGA’s director of programming and investigations. Caitlin Kearney is a BGA policy associate.