Time For Chicago Aldermen To Empower A Real Watchdog
UPDATE–BGA STATEMENT ON NEW CHICAGO IG LAW
"The BGA is disappointed the proposed Inspector General reform ordinance adopted Wednesday by the Chicago City Council only goes halfway toward providing the independent oversight that residents and taxpayers deserve.
While the ordinance is an improvement over the most recent legislative IG ordinance, it regrettably falls short of real reform by eliminating the audit or program review function that would have allowed the IG to follow the money spent by aldermen, their staffs and their committees.
So while the BGA applauds the measure because it extends the city's IG's jurisdiction to the Council, we regret that the IG will have to work in a diminished capacity.
An historic opportunity for real and positive reform has been squandered and lost.
We commend the aldermen who led the way for more transparent and accountable government. We hope they’ll continue their efforts, as we will, pressing for greater openness, accountability and transparency at all levels of government."
Is the Chicago City Council finally ready to make history, and embrace real reform, by approving a tough ethics ordinance that empowers a watchdog with sharp teeth and a loud bark to investigate and audit aldermen, their staffs and their committees?
Or will they put their watchdog on a short leash, and cripple the reform effort, by removing the audit power so their spending of our tax dollars can’t be monitored?
In other words, walk the walk, or just talk the talk?
The answer’s expected within hours, at Wednesday morning’s Council meeting, and it will speak volumes.
The watershed issue is a proposal to extend the oversight authority of Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who currently investigates and audits the executive branch of city government, to the legislative branch—City Council.
It’s a strong but measured ordinance the Better Government Association’s policy team emphatically supports because it provides the competent, professional oversight necessary to protect city residents and taxpayers.
Related Article: BGA Calls For Empowered Inspector General To Watch City Council
Last month it looked like the votes were there to do just that—to finally crack down on aldermanic waste, fraud, inefficiency and corruption, and restore a modicum of public confidence in their scandal-scarred institution.
But then the big wheels started turning.
Two influential Council veterans, aldermen Ed Burke and Carrie Austin, used a procedural move to delay a final vote on the ordinance until now.
And, as the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman reported last week, they’ve been maneuvering since then to clip Ferguson’s wings so he can’t follow the money and hold aldermen accountable.
Eliminating audit power would, for instance, significantly limit oversight of Burke’s powerful Finance Committee, which manages the city’s $100 million workers compensation program and signs off on billions in city spending in a veritable “black hole”—out of sight and free of scrutiny.
That’s led to multiple allegations of patronage abuse, ghost payrolling and conflicts of interest.
It’s time to pull back the curtain on that and other aldermanic activities, so the BGA sent a letter to Council members over the weekend reiterating our support for the original IG ordinance, and calling the auditing “carve-out” amendment bad public policy—a restriction that’s not placed on any other major municipal IG we’ve looked at.
Some aldermen argue that allowing Ferguson to oversee the Council, even in this limited fashion, is “reform,” so why not cut the deal without the pesky audit function?
That would be a tragic mistake at a time when the Council has a chance to fully embrace clean, ethical, transparent government.
Remember— 30-plus aldermen have been convicted of dirty deeds and hauled off to jail in the past four decades—and that’s what motivated a growing bloc of progressive aldermen to invest three years in the fight for a smart and substantive ordinance that gives taxpayers protection against Council corruption.
The BGA commends them for their unwavering support for this long-overdue reform, and we join them in asking their colleagues to approve the original ordinance with the audit function.
That’s what the Council majority claims to want, so let’s pass it undiluted.
It will require a gut check—a mustering of enough civic courage to do what’s right, not merely politically expedient.
To paraphrase poet Robert Frost, it may be the road “less travelled” but it can make “all the difference” here in Chicago.