Andy Shaw: Chicago Has Tough Government Watchdogs, State Has Wimpy Lapdogs

<p><em><strong>Hats off to the Police Board, Ethics Board and IGs that are stepping up to hold public officials accountable.</strong></em></p>

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about government watchdogs in his bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.


In a state where too many appointed government watchdogs resemble lapdogs—inspectors, auditors and regulators who whimper and nip instead of barking and biting—Chicago, of all places, has assembled and empowered an impressive group of attack dogs who go after clout, cronyism, misconduct and waste with a ferocity good government groups are applauding.

These local watchdogs are key weapons in the fight to eventually replace the "Chicago Way" with the "Right Way"— a municipal culture that embraces honest, fair, accountable, transparent and efficient public service.

One big dog is Joe Ferguson, City of Chicago inspector general, who's been on the prowl for almost eight years and recently extended his jurisdiction to the infamously reprobate City Council in addition to calling out errant workers and mismanaged programs in city departments.

Another is Nicholas Schuler, who's finishing his third year as Chicago Public Schools IG and shares Ferguson's relish for snarling at power brokers along with delinquent rank-and-file employees.

Ferguson and Schuler have several statutory constraints but enough authority and independence to be effective, and they've been joined on the front lines of oversight by formidable colleagues.

Lori Lightfoot, a former Better Government Association board member who's chaired the Police Board for almost two years, and Bill Conlon, head of the Ethics Board since last October, have infused their teams with a watchdog commitment that reflects their backgrounds as tough federal prosecutors and powerhouse Chicago lawyers.

The Police Board took an unprecedented step last year by affirming misconduct allegations against all 15 of the officers brought up on charges. All 15 were fired, suspended or quit.

By comparison, half the cops who went before the board in 2014 were cleared.

The police union accuses Lightfoot's board of rendering excessively harsh verdicts to satisfy a lust for revenge in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, but Lightfoot disagrees:

"We take our task very seriously. We have an obligation to the public, the department and individual officers to face hard truths, treat each case as unique and make the fairest decisions possible. That’s exactly what we've been doing."

Conlon delivers a similar message:

"This is a very strong Ethics Board that's going to act when we have something to act on."

They demonstrated that in February by slapping former Uber executive and one-time Obama campaign manager David Plouffe with a $90,000 fine for violating city lobbying rules.

The Ethics Board is also considering fines against more than a dozen other mayoral cronies who, like Plouffe, used Mayor Rahm Emanuel's private email to discuss their business interests in possible contravention of lobbying regulations.

In addition, Conlon's public comments prompted cancelation of special Cubs and White Sox ticket deals for aldermen, and walked back proposed disclosure exemptions for City Council contract employees.

"We've been presented with opportunities to weigh in on ethics issues and there's no hesitation to do so," says Conlon.

He and Lightfoot, like Ferguson and Schuler, are seizing opportunities many of their predecessors ignored and most of the state's appointed watchdogs can't or don't take advantage of.

State government is still a fiscal and ethical quagmire, but its inspectors, auditors and regulators are toothless tigers statutorily constrained or personally disinclined to hold public officials accountable or reassure Illinois taxpayers that someone's got their backs.

In Chicago, where politics is a "blood sport," four of its internal watchdogs are prompting reforms by growling, snarling and biting hard.

We need to unleash a similar breed of independent, reasonably empowered attack dogs to roam the halls of the Capitol in Springfield if we're ever going to reform state government.