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Council committee OK with Ferguson investigating aldermen

Chicago aldermen who have had 30 of their former colleagues go to prison since 1970 agreed Monday to do something they have resisted for decades.

By a unanimous voice vote, the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development agreed to empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees.

The vote was all the more surprising because it came over the persistent opposition of the City Council’s two most powerful aldermen: Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

Austin’s son resigned from his job at the Department of Streets and Sanitation after one of Ferguson’s investigations. Burke went toe-to-toe with Ferguson over the issue of worker’s compensation claims. Both wanted to find a replacement for newly departed Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, whose tumultuous term ended in mid-November.

But Burke and Austin were unable to stop the political train from leaving the station.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the Workforce Development chairman who also serves as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, was asked what turned the tide for a political move that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

“Their experience with the last guy was a big impetus to try and get it right,” O’Connor said of Khan, who infuriated aldermen with his blanket demand for their time sheets and what they considered penny-ante investigations.

O’Connor then talked about the remarkable turnaround for Joe Ferguson, who spent two years in a cold war of sorts with Emanuel, only to be reappointed to another four-year term where his powers have been expanded dramatically.

“If you’ve been around the building for a while and you remember other inspectors general, if there was a move to do this at that time, there would be a very different reaction to this ordinance as it stands today,” O’Connor said.

“But Inspector General Ferguson has done a lot of work with the city. He’s done a lot of work with the departments. He has proven to at least be thorough and to be contemplative in terms of what he brings forward. So clearly he’s given an opportunity for people to say that the work he’s doing has merit.”

Austin agreed that Khan’s “missteps” and “arrogance” set the stage for Monday’s committee vote.

But she argued that empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen is a precedent-setting mistake that runs contrary to the separation of powers.

“We don’t want Ferguson. Now, all of the sudden, we want Ferguson. That’s power [over] both branches in one man’s hands. No. I don’t think that would be right. … What is wrong with having two separate bodies of government? I came in this door with that ideology, and I’m going to stick to it,” she said.

“We are separate individuals. We are not like every normal employee. We’re elected just like he [Emanuel] is elected. I don’t know why you all have got to throw us in with all the rest of the city employees.”

Burke brushed past reporters seeking his comments about the move to empower Ferguson to investigate aldermen.

The two political powerhouses are not the only ones with political qualms.

Prior to Monday’s vote, Ald. Will Burns (4th) questioned what “protections” were built into the ordinance to prevent aldermanic candidates or developers angered by zoning and land-use decisions an alderman makes from filing baseless complaints.

“We tell people ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And sometimes when you tell people ‘no’ and you make difficult decisions over land use, over TIF funding, over public subsidies, CDBG, whether someone can purchase a vacant lot, you could anger those people and they could file complaints and … abuse, unfortunately, the ethics process to harass and to seek retaliation against an alderman for a decision they did not appreciate,” Burns said.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said there were protections built into the ordinance that created the Office of Legislative Inspector and Faisal Khan “routinely ignored” those safeguards.

“Whether it was notifying you of who signed a complaint, notifying you of the charges of the complaint, notifying you within seven days of the commencement of an investigation. The list goes on and on. They were routinely ignored. And you know what? I survived,” said Moore, one of Khan’s earliest targets.

“It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We really need to send a very strong message to our constituents that we don’t believe ourselves to be above the law. That leads us to some potential for our political opponents and others to abuse that. But, I trust at least the current inspector general to understand the difference between wheat and chaff and separate the two.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a prime mover behind the ordinance expanding Ferguson’s powers, acknowledged that aldermanic fears are well-founded.

“Part of the problem is we haven’t taken enough aggressive action in what we do as a City Council. But on the other side of that, the Internet — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, places like EveryBlock — create a really insane environment. You have license to say whatever you want no matter how crazy it is, and no matter how libelous it is,” Pawar said.

“There are a lot of people who want our jobs. That creates a lot of incentive for people to say some of the craziest things and, quite frankly, lie. I do think there’s a proper check in place that allows the inspector general to have … a consultative role with City Council.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he, too, “understands why people are nervous about this.” He noted that aldermen “are a different kind of city employee” and that “public charges, especially those that are baseless, can do a lot of damage to politicians.”

Still, Reilly called the reform that legendary Ald. Paddy Bauler once said the City Council wasn’t ready for “long overdue.”