The BGA’s Agenda for Lori Lightfoot

Chicago's new mayor takes office on May 20. She'll need to hit the ground running — and never stop. Here's how she can get off to a good start.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A new Chicago mayor. A new City Council. It’s a time of great challenge and great opportunity, a chance to reimagine and reinvent city government.

The Better Government Association urges Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot to act with urgency to create a Chicago that is more transparent, efficient and accountable — the three pillars of the BGA’s mission. We’re confident that Lightfoot, a former member of the BGA’s board, shares these values.

Specifically, Lightfoot should focus on 10 key agenda items, with detailed action steps we will list below. Those items are:

  1. Enforce a citywide standard of proactive, affirmative transparency
  2. Eliminate conflicts of interest in city government
  3. Transform policing for a safer Chicago
  4. Reset the relationship between the City Council and the mayor
  5. Strengthen oversight of all government bodies and functions
  6. Wrestle the pension monster to the ground
  7. Don’t count on new revenues to right the ship
  8. Restore public confidence in TIFs
  9. Support a robust Census count followed by fair redistricting
  10. Go slow on that elected school board

This agenda, while ambitious, is not comprehensive. Nor will it be easy to accomplish. Many of these objectives will require changes in state law or the municipal code. Many of them have met with resistance for decades. It will take leadership and commitment to drive the city forward.

The Lightfoot era begins May 20. Let’s get started.

1. Enforce a citywide standard of proactive, affirmative transparency

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act begins with the promise that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government,” then quickly pivots to a long list of exemptions and bureaucratic hurdles that are routinely employed to withhold that information from the public. Custodians of those records violate the spirit and often the letter of the FOIA in their daily dealings with citizens. This delays or prevents the release of information to which the public is entitled, at great expense to the individuals who seek those records — and the taxpayers of Chicago. Mayor Lightfoot, put a stop to it.

The city’s default response to FOIA requests should be to produce the records without delay. In consultation with Outside General Counsel Matt Topic, the BGA urges a policy under which a city record could be withheld only if:

  • State law or federal law prohibit its release, or

  • A claimed exemption passes a series of tests to determine whether releasing the record would result in public harm that outweighs the interest in disclosure.

The city should also:

  • Eliminate use of the “deliberative process” exemption and invoke the “undue burden” exemption under limited, clearly defined circumstances.

  • Eliminate political considerations from FOIA responses.

  • Impose discipline for foot-dragging or stonewalling on FOIA requests.

  • Affirmatively state that all city business conducted on non-city accounts or devices is public record.

  • Support changes in state law so that negotiations between the city and its public employee unions are not conducted in secret.

  • Support proposed state legislation increasing penalties for FOIA violations.

  • Require that public meetings are held at times and places that enhance citizen participation.

  • Make sure city web sites and materials are easy to access, navigate and understand (including in multiple languages) and ensure they are updated as close to in real time as possible.

Read Topic’s detailed memo here.

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2. Eliminate conflicts of interest in city government

The Chicago Board of Ethics is refining a list of recommended amendments to the city’s ethics laws relating to lobbyists, financial disclosure, conflicts of interest, campaign financing and more.

Last year, an investigation by the BGA and WBEZ found that Ald. Ed Burke — accused by federal prosecutors of leveraging his public position to steer business to his private law firm — invoked the Council’s Rule 14 to recuse himself 464 times during an eight-year span. During that time, the other 49 aldermen combined recused themselves 108 times.

Some key enhancements to conflict rules:

  • Require aldermen who abstain from voting under Rule 14 to disclose the potential conflict of interest to the Board of Ethics, to be posted on its website.

  • Prohibit aldermen from outside employment that conflicts with taxpayer interests.

  • Add teeth to the Ethics Ordinance by increasing the maximum fine for violations from the current $2,000 to as much as $10,000.

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3. Transform policing for a safer Chicago

If not for the shooting of Laquan McDonald, Chicago wouldn’t have a federal consent decree. But the relationship between Chicago Police Department and the citizens it serves was broken long before that tragic encounter between one white police officer and one black teenager.

In the investigation that followed, the U.S. Department of Justice called out the city’s long history of failing to hold officers accountable for misconduct. But it also found that CPD “does not provide officers with sufficient direction, supervision or support to ensure lawful and effective policing.”

The consent decree, signed Jan. 31, is meant to address those problems holistically: protecting the rights of citizens, building trust between officers and the public, and making sure police have the tools to do their job safely and professionally.

As former chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, the mayor is invested in these reforms. We urge her to demand full compliance and more:

  • Accelerate the timeline. For example, the consent decree calls for the court monitor to decide by January 2021 whether to require CPD to adopt a policy on foot pursuits. Such a policy should be adopted immediately. (The Department of Justice found that “tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits” by Chicago police officers “too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone—including unarmed individuals.”)

  • Make sure CPD’s strategic plan aligns with the benchmarks spelled out in the decree.

  • Embrace community policing from the top down.

  • Adopt a policy of posting records of citizen complaints of police misconduct as soon as an investigation is completed, instead of requiring the public to file a FOIA request.

  • Enforce a zero tolerance policy toward the “code of silence.” There should be no ambiguity about a police officer’s duty to report misconduct by a fellow officer or about the prohibition of retaliation, interference or other forms of pressure meant to stifle cooperation with such investigations.

  • Negotiate police contracts to remove provisions that shield officers from accountability.

The consent decree states that “nothing in this agreement is intended to conflict with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.” The city should affirmatively adopt the explicit interpretation suggested by BGA: “Nothing in this consent decree prohibits the release of any records that are subject to disclosure under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.”

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Before being elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot was chair of the Police Accountability Task Force. The task force found the Chicago Police Department was plagued by systematic racism and had lost the trust of the community. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

4. Reset the relationship between the City Council and the mayor

Sweeping cultural changes are needed to restore a healthy separation of powers, with aldermen assuming greater responsibility for legislating while ceding most executive functions to City Hall.

This realignment should follow two tracks:

First, make sure aldermen have the power and resources to legislate effectively (then don’t forget to step back and let them). Heavy-handed interference from City Hall reduces aldermen to rubber stamps, largely unaccountable for major decisions affecting the city.

Second, limit aldermanic prerogative. Allowing aldermen unilateral veto power over decisions in their wards continues to attract the notice of federal prosecutors. (See: Willie Cochran, 20th; Danny Solis, 25th; Ed Burke, 14th.) It’s also poor public policy: Planning, zoning and community investment should be evaluated comprehensively, not ward-by-ward. Developers shouldn’t need an alderman’s support to secure city financing for their projects. Neighborhood opposition should not be a barrier to affordable housing. Aldermen and residents are entitled to a voice in these decisions, but a project should be measured against a citywide vision.

Some specific steps:

  • Instruct city departments to apply regulations without regard for political considerations — meaning an alderman’s signature is no longer make-or-break. Require documentation of contacts from anyone seeking to influence such decisions.

  • Divorce infrastructure planning from the aldermanic menu program. Alderman should retain an “allowance” for neighborhood enhancements to be determined by participatory budgeting.

  • Professionalize and empower the City Council, with its own administrative officer, parliamentarian and legal counsel.

  • Strengthen the Council Office of Financial Analysis. Require the analyst to review and report on all budgets and spending measures without being requested and to respond to inquiries from aldermen without a gatekeeper. Add staffing and resources to meet these requirements.

  • Realign City Council committees to match the city’s evolving needs. Set budgets for Council committees based on formal input from chairmen about staffing and resources.

  • Eliminate rules that allow a single alderman to bottle up an ordinance indefinitely, and promote rules that prohibit fast-track, last-minute decisions on mayoral initiatives — a reasonable minimum public notice period, for example, before a vote is taken.

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5. Strengthen oversight of all government bodies and functions

The current arrangement — separate watchdogs with separate rules — leads to inconsistent and wasteful oversight. Taxpayers deserve better.

  • Create a universal Inspector General with full jurisdiction over City Hall, the City Council and sister agencies. As a first/interim step, the agencies could enter into intergovernmental agreements with the city Inspector General to provide oversight, similar to the newly adopted arrangement between the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and Cook County. This would assure uniformity and independence, reduce duplicative spending and allow the agencies access to greater resources and expertise.

  • Amend state law to place oversight of the Chicago Transit Authority under the city’s IG instead of the state’s Office of Executive Inspector General.

  • Amend the municipal code to give the inspector general authority to enforce subpoenas instead of relying on the corporation counsel. The current arrangement presents a conflict of interest for the corporation counsel, on whom the subpoenas are frequently served.

  • Codify the promise that quasi-governmental bodies created and funded by the city (such as Emanuel’s infrastructure trust) are subject to IG oversight.

  • As a separate entity under state law, Chicago Public Schools should retain its own IG, but the office should be modeled after the city’s IG, with the same protections (guaranteed budget, independence from the school board) and resources.

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6. Wrestle the pension monster to the ground

Next year, Chicago will have to ante up an extra $270 million to shore up its four woefully underfunded pension funds. That’s on top of an estimated $252 million gap in the corporate fund budget, and assorted other unknowns, like the cost of back pay to police and firefighters working on expired contracts. The real gap is somewhere between $600 million and $800 million, we’re told. And it will only get worse as those required pension payments climb to almost $1 billion by 2023.

Chicagoans will pay more and more for less and less until the pension debt is under control. They can’t afford for their leaders to shrug and blame the Illinois Constitution, which says public employee pension benefits “cannot be diminished or impaired.” The mayor should:

  • Rethink opposition to a constitutional amendment that would give the city flexibility to work with its unions to contain costs. This can be done without breaking promises to current employees and retirees.

  • Resist temptation to ask lawmakers to push required pension payments even farther into the future.

  • Remain skeptical of Rahm Emanuel’s proposed $10 billion bond solution – but never say never. The idea is that the city would sell the bonds at a relatively low interest rate; the pension funds would invest the money and pray the returns were higher. Yes, it’s risky. We haven’t heard a compelling argument in favor. We haven’t heard a promising alternative, either.

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7. Don’t count on new revenues to right the ship

A progressive state income tax. Legal (and taxable) marijuana. A Chicago casino. After ruling out a commuter tax, a head tax, a city income tax and other options, Lightfoot’s plan seems to be to rely on a big assist from Springfield. We repeat: fix the pensions. After that:

  • Follow through on the promise to find efficiencies in city government before hitting up taxpayers for more money: Make the clerk and treasurer executive positions, rather than elected. Merge administration of the city’s four pension funds. Hire a risk manager to minimize the cost of police misconduct settlements and other liabilities.

  • Major cost-cutting initiatives will take a long time (and a lot of political will) to accomplish, which is another way of saying they won’t provide short-term budget relief. Get started anyway. At the top of the list is reducing the size of the City Council. Taxpayers can’t afford 50 wards overseen by 50 aldermen (who ought to spend more time legislating anyway; see above).

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8. Restore public confidence in TIFs

Tax increment financing is an important development tool, but overuse and abuse have made taxpayers deeply distrustful of the program. Hundreds of millions of dollars are generated and spent outside of the normal budgeting process, with little of that investment happening in areas that need it most. To correct this:

  • Commit to using TIF as originally intended: to promote development and economic growth in areas that otherwise wouldn’t see it.

  • Adopt a transparent and collaborative approach to TIF. Support public education and involve residents in planning, oversight and spending decisions about their neighborhood TIF districts.

  • Don’t treat TIF revenue like a mayoral slush fund. Retire the TIF districts that have fulfilled their original purpose (or have demonstrably failed to do so); raise the operating levy to recover those tax dollars if necessary and spend them transparently.

  • Alternatively, port TIF money purposefully and transparently to neighborhoods in greater need of investment.

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9. Support a robust Census count followed by fair redistricting

Chicago should prepare for the 2020 Census as if it were an emergency, because it is. With the city’s population in decline, a complete count is critical to maintaining state and federal funding. The numbers are also the basis for new maps that will determine representation on the City Council.

  • Commit resources immediately for outreach to hard-to-count populations. Communicate the importance of an accurate headcount through inserts or electronics attachments in all correspondence from the city to residents. Post or hand out materials in all public facilities. Set up stations in libraries and other public buildings where residents can complete the survey online.

  • Support efforts to promote fair representation in the coming round of legislative redistricting. Lobby aggressively for the Fair Maps Amendment (SJRCA4).

  • Support a city redistricting process that prioritizes fair and effective ward representation — not dividing neighborhoods, for example — rather than the re-election prospects of incumbents.

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10. Go slow on that elected school board

Lightfoot has promised to draft and pursue a change in state law giving Chicagoans the right to elect an independent school board. It’s hard to argue against popular demand for an accountable, representative board. But it’s also risky to dismiss the gains — in academic growth, graduation rates, college enrollment and other metrics — under the current model, in which the mayor controls the schools and appoints the board.

Lightfoot also has pledged that until the law is changed, board members will be selected with input from parents, educators and experts, that they will be chosen based on their backgrounds, not their presumed loyalty to the mayor, and that the board will conduct its business, except personnel matters, in public. Nothing in the current model precludes any of this, of course. It could be all that is needed to keep our schools on track. It’s worth exploring whether this approach, followed faithfully, could satisfy voters who are disillusioned with mayoral control, without disrupting the real progress that has benefited CPS students.

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