City Hall In For A Major Reform
Question: What proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Chicago aldermen need a financial watchdog to help them analyze an administration’s mega-buck spending, borrowing and contracting proposals?
The obvious answer is the reviled parking meter privatization deal former Mayor Richard Daley rammed through the City Council in two days in ’09 without public hearings or independent analysis.
OK, but it’s more complicated than that. How about: Opaque bond transactions that saddle taxpayers and their kids and grandkids with billions in debt; rigged contracts that enrich connected insiders; dubious economic development projects — some are TIFs — that benefit profitable companies at the expense of underfunded schools; and annual 500-page budgets that benumb anyone who’s not a CPA.
All the above have a common thread: They’re big, complicated and full of enough zeroes to make your eyes glaze over.
As a result, intimidated aldermen tend to unanimously approve these kinds of proposals without understanding, and in some cases, even reading them, or considering their potentially deleterious long-term implications.
It’s hardly an effective way to protect, or even represent, the taxpayers who elect them.
And for this we have the largest and most expensive City Council in the country on a per capita basis.
But here’s the good news: Chicago is actually on the verge of a very significant reform — passage of an ordinance creating the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, aka COFA.
With COFA, Chicago will join San Diego, New York and Pittsburgh — and, of course, Congress and the Illinois General Assembly — in establishing an independent office to provide lawmakers with financial assessments of budgets and other big-dollar proposals.
It’s about time.
But the ordinance, as written, has some weaknesses.
It doesn’t allow individual aldermen or committee chairs to request reports on administration proposals.
Only the chair of the budget committee can trigger an analysis of anything outside the scope of COFA’s quarterly and annual reports, and that’s too limited.
Expanding the number of alderman who can ask for financial data would make COFA more accountable and more independent of the administration, and that’s a good thing.
Also, the budget allotment for the new office is paltry. An initial appropriation of less than $500,000 means COFA will be hard-pressed to turn out timely analyses of budgets and other costly proposals.
In addition, some aldermen are complaining about the funding source: A portion of their contracting account — it’s actually more like a "slush fund" — that’s often used to hire friends, relatives and cronies without full disclosure.
Protect a "slush fund"? Spare me.
As for the substantive concerns, they can be addressed now or after the office is established.
And I’m pretty sure the typical apprehension that accompanies accountability and efficiency initiatives in Chicago will dissipate as aldermen begin to rely on COFA’s work product.
It’s not a panacea, but along with equally important structural changes in the vetting of privatization deals — that’s another ordinance for another day — it’s a major reform.
The BGA’s enthusiastic support for the COFA ordinance, which is echoed by our friend Laurence Msall’s Civic Federation, comes with an admonition: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
We are, after all, the Better Government Association — not the Perfect Government Association.
And this ordinance is certainly a step toward better. Way better.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.