Better Government Association Commends Passage of Chicago Ethics Ordinance–Sees More to Do

Bryan Zarou 
Director of Policy 
Better Government Association 


City Council passage of improvements to Chicago’s government ethics ordinance is a welcome step toward reform–with more work yet ahead, the Better Government Association said Wednesday. The research and policy arm of the 99-year old civic watchdog organization assisted Ald. Michele Smith and the city’s Board of Ethics in drafting the reform measure. 

Among other changes, the new ordinance:

  • Broadens campaign finance restrictions on city contractors to include contractors for sister agencies such as the Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools 
  • Strengthens conflict of interest provisions to prohibit city employees from exercising official powers on behalf of a relative, spouse, or domestic partner
  • Prohibits lobbying on the floor of City Council, including by prior members of Council
  • Requires specific and complete disclosure of the conflict of interest in cases where members of City Council recuse themselves from a vote due to conflict of interest
  • Expands conflict of interest provisions to cover all city officers.
  • Requires independent contractors who work for City Council or its committees to complete required ethics training and file annual financial interest statements, including a record of which committees or other bodies they contract with. 
  • Strengthens fines for ethics violations, including granting the Board of Ethics the ability to levy fines equal to the value of any monetary gain from wrongdoing. 

“Passage of this ordinance is important for the city, and it’s important for voters and other residents who have a right to expect honest, transparent government,” said David Greising, president of the Better Government Association. “The record of corruption in city government is deplorable, and will not be fixed with any single reform measure. We applaud Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward) for introducing this ordinance and working with the mayor’s office to achieve important reforms. And we call on both to continue the effort–the difficult work of reforming city government is far from done.”

In addition to the measures that passed, the Better Government Association also had pushed for a requirement that Alderpersons recusing themselves from a vote be absent from discussion of the matter as well, and for the expansion of campaign finance rules to cover subcontractors on city contracts. Those changes were stripped from the final bill during negotiations with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, which cited the city’s current practice of not tracking  subcontractors. “There’s still work to be done, clearly,” said BGA Policy Director Bryan Zarou. “If the city’s response to this provision is that it’s not possible because the Department of Procurement Services doesn’t maintain a database of city contract subcontractors, then we call on Mayor Lightfoot to order city agencies to build that database. Such a proactive move would underscore Mayor Lightfoot’s commitment to transparency in government.”

The BGA committed to working with reformers in City Council and the mayor’s office to further expand government accountability provisions.“Ethics Chair Michele Smith brought these changes forward proactively, working with the Board of Ethics, and to see an independent effort by a reform-seeking Alderperson gain majority support and pass in a floor vote is very heartening,” Zarou said.

The Better Government Association is a 99-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.