Time to grade mayor’s performance

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Where does the time go?

It’s been more than three years since we sat down with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to review the promises and progress of his first 100 days in office in an interview that was broadcast live on the Better Government Association’s website. You can still find the conversation on our YouTube channel.

Emanuel discussed his plans for improving schools and fighting crime, answered questions submitted by viewers, and fielded a few of my inquiries, including a timetable for keeping a campaign pledge to extend the authority of the city’s inspector general to the “sister agencies” that manage parks, housing, schools and public buildings.

The mayor said other commitments, especially putting more cops on the street, were higher priorities, but he’d get there.

“I didn’t say I was doing it all in the first 100 days,” Emanuel told me. “I’ll get to it. And if not, people will hold me accountable.”

Well, this is a good time for the BGA to hold the mayor accountable on a few of the “good government” goals that were part of a transition report released just before he took office in the spring of 2011.

The document includes 55 short- and long-term objectives, but we’re focusing on four that cried out for reform: Budgeting, Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Business Climate, and Ethics.

Emanuel’s made progress in all of these areas, but there’s more heavy lifting ahead if he hopes to meet the benchmarks.

For instance, the budget process has more transparency and input from city departments, sharper financial assessments, and tighter deadlines.

But community participation is virtually non-existent, and there’s still a long way to go to eliminate pension woes, structural deficits, poor credit ratings and excessive long-term borrowing.

On the TIF front, Emanuel’s phased out some TIF districts and put more information about TIF spending online.

But the city hasn’t stopped using tens of millions of TIF dollars to assist wealthy corporations, institutions and clouted contractors in areas that aren’t truly blighted, when the money should be spent in struggling parts of the city that sorely need economic development.

On the business front, the mayor’s cut the number of business licenses in half, eliminated the dreaded head tax, streamlined inspections, and attracted an impressive array of new private sector initiatives.

But business fees have been increased for, among other things, zoning applications and permits for new loading zones, and some companies still gripe about a chilly business climate.

Ethics reform has been a roller coaster ride.

Emanuel’s made more information accessible, tightened controls on lobbyists, formed an ethics task force, enacted many of its recommendations, and perhaps most impressively, de-politicized personnel policies enough to convince a federal judge to free the city from the costly oversight of an anti-patronage hiring monitor.

There’s also been significant progress in recent weeks to expand the authority of the city’s internal watchdog, Inspector General Joe Ferguson, to at least one “sister agency” and to the City Council.

Those changes would finally move Emanuel closer to fulfilling his IG campaign pledge, but finishing the job requires an IG equipped with more authority, resources and subpoena power, and an ability to investigate public employees who hide information behind attorney-client privilege.

The mayor would also do well to revisit the fundraising and travel reimbursement policies that have sparked ethical concerns along the way.

When you put it all together, our “good government” scorecard reflects a lot of promises kept, but mostly the easy stuff—the “low hanging fruit”—and limited progress on the more daunting challenges, including comprehensive budget, TIF and ethics reform.

So here we are, approaching the end of Emanuel’s first term, which seems like a good time for another sit-down to discuss, in more detail, the progress and the pitfalls on the road to the good government watchdogs demand and taxpayers deserve.

Mr. Mayor, let’s put something on the calendar.

Andy Shaw is Ppresident & CEO of the Better Government Association.

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