Better Government Association Policy Statement: Amended Ethics Ordinance is Weaker but Still Valuable

Bryan Zarou 
Director of Policy 
Better Government Association 


Amended language of 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith’s ethics ordinance revealed this Thursday evening weakens key provisions, but still leaves a valuable update to the city’s good-government laws intact.

One key provision—the banning of former members of City Council from lobbying on the City Council floor remains in the updated ordinance.

“Allowing former members of the city council to lobby on the city council floor is an outdated, corrupt practice, and has no business in Chicago’s city council, we are glad to see this provision intact” said Bryan Zarou, the Better Government Association’s Policy Director. “We strongly urge for City Council to approve this measure and discontinue that practice”

The ordinance, first introduced at the April City Council as O2022-1100, was delayed for several months by Mayor Lightfoot’s allies in City Council. A new version released publicly on Thursday makes the following substantive changes:

  • Removes a requirement that alderpersons recusing themselves from a matter due to a conflict of interest leave the floor during debate;

  • A provision prohibiting city employees and elected officials from representing third parties before other city agencies or officials has been amended to allow representation on behalf of a non-profit seeking to donate goods or services to the city;

  • Adds a new requirement that the Board of Ethics notify individuals who violate ethics laws in writing and allow 10 days for their response before publishing a finding of probable cause that a violation of the ethics ordinance has occurred; and

  • A provision expanding campaign finance restrictions on city contractors to also include subcontractors on city contracts has been removed.

The ordinance, which included recommendations made by the Better Government Association Policy Team, retains a number of its strongest original provisions, including:

  • Expanding and strengthening “conflict of interest” provisions to prohibit the exercise of a city employee’s official powers on behalf of a relative, spouse, or domestic partner

  • Prohibiting lobbying on the floor of City Council, including by prior members of Council

  • Requiring full and specific on-the-record disclosure of the conflict of interest in cases where members of City Council recuse themselves from a vote due to conflict of interest, and expanding conflict of interest provisions to cover all city officers.

  • Requiring 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.

  • Strengthening 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.

“This is still a strong set of updates, though not as effective in cleaning up city government as the original language,'' said Zarou. “One priority for us now is working with the City Council and the Department of Procurement Services to overcome any technical obstacles to tracking and including subcontractors in campaign finance restrictions.”

“City Council members would need to report their conflicts of interest,” but Zarou added, “Alderwoman Smith and the Board of Ethics both deserve a lot of credit for taking this up proactively and moving the ball forward on their own. It’s very rare to see a sitting elected official arguing for legal restrictions on their own position, and that’s a heartening change to see in a City Council that still has members under federal indictment.”

The Better Government Association is a 99-year old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, civic engagement and policy reforms 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.