Shaw: When Government 'Pulls a Lucy'

Chicago City Council is infamous for contemplating a good government reform and then yanking out those key elements before a final vote.

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw writes a bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.

One of my favorite “Peanuts” comic strip panels features Lucy, for the umpteenth time, yanking a football she’s holding for a placekick out of the path of Charlie’s accelerating foot before he can boot it.

Down he goes in an angst-filled heap, sadly realizing, once again, that Lucy’s not trustworthy.

Arrghhh!

I have a similar reaction when public officials contemplate a good government reform, only to pull a “Lucy” by yanking out key elements before a final vote.

The Chicago City Council is infamous for those craven contortions when it comes to transparency and accountability.

Case in point: two years ago, after the council parted ways with its first legislative inspective general—a toothless internal watchdog—a coalition of progressive aldermen proposed an expansion of administrative IG Joe Ferguson’s authority to include the Council along with city departments and agencies.

Groups like the Better Government Association, cognizant of Ferguson’s eye-opening audits of profligate spending and shoddy performance, were hoping to see him shine an equally bright light on the Council’s Byzantine committee system.

But audit power was yanked out of the final draft of the ordinance by powerful committee chairmen who didn’t want Ferguson scrutinizing their fiefdoms.

Arghhh!

A similar bait-and-switch occurred a couple years earlier when aldermen were considering the creation of a new, independent legislative office to help them analyze the administration’s complex tax and spending proposals so they’d have more than sugar-coated assurances from mayoral allies allergic to pushback.

But once again the final version of the measure was missing key oversight elements, and the new Council Office of Financial Analysis, aka COFA, was only authorized to review the administration’s annual audit, financial analysis and tentative budget.

No assessment of the myriad financial proposals that come up at every council meeting, and no opportunity for aldermen to obtain independent reviews of pending legislation without the approval of Budget Committee chairman Carrie Austin, a mayoral ally who supervises COFA’s director.

Arghhh? Yes, but maybe not as incurable as Charlie Brown’s angst. An amended COFA ordinance drafted by Ald. Brendan Reilly and co-sponsored by 31 of his colleagues—more than enough to pass it—would prompt an “aah” instead of an “Arghhh.”

Reilly envisions an empowered COFA providing aldermen with detailed analyses before final votes on every major revenue or appropriation proposal, including plans to sell or lease city assets worth more than $5 million. Abominable deals like the parking meter privatization make asset oversight essential.

Cities like New York, San Francisco and San Diego already have strong, independent financial offices that arm their legislators with enough information to confidently approve good ideas and boldly reject bad ones. In addition, all three offices make the reports public, which is important, according to Doug Turetsky of New York City’s independent budget office: “It helps level the playing field between the mayor and the rest of the city’s elected officials.”

Andrea Tevlin of San Diego’s independent budget office adds that “everyone should know what information council members are getting or else you’re working in a vacuum—an environment that’s no better than you had before.”

Ald. Reilly’s proposal doesn’t call for public dissemination of the reports, but that provision can be added later and its omission shouldn’t delay passage of an ordinance that will still make COFA more effective now.

The bottom line, now or later, is an independent and informative voice for the Council and the public.

When that happens the legislative football will be secure, and we can save the next “Arghhh” for another day as the reform ball sails squarely through the uprights.

About the Author

Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.