The earth beneath Chicago’s City Hall moved Wednesday. But it was more like a tremor than a political earthquake. It wasn’t nearly as strong as champions of ethics reform would have liked.
After nearly three decades of tooth-and-nail resistance, a City Council that has seen 30 members go to prison since 1970 gave Inspector General Joe Ferguson the power to investigate aldermen and their employees. He replaces Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, whose tumultuous term ended in November.
But by a 25-23 vote that was the closest votes the Council has seen in years, aldermen amended the ordinance in a way that will cut off half of the oversight that Ferguson exercises over the rest of city government.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who played a hands-off role as the debate raged around him, refused to say how he would have voted if the tense roll call had been 25-25.
“The good news is, it wasn’t a tie vote. We don’t do hypotheticals,” the mayor said.
The change limits Ferguson to investigating potential violations of the law by aldermen and their employees. Program audits that Ferguson routinely conducts to determine whether taxpayers’ money is being wasted will be off-limits.
The $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program will be safe from Ferguson’s scrutiny. So will the $100 million-a-year worker’s compensation program administered by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th).
After the vote, Ferguson released a “letter to the taxpayers” arguing that aldermen “squandered what could and should have been a singularly successful moment in . . . civic history.”
“Instead of embracing oversight for itself [on par with] the rest of city government, it retreated,” Ferguson wrote.
The ordinance “nudges the ball forward but leaves Chicago with a form of Council oversight that is still separate [procedurally] and unequal [substantively] from the rest of city government.”
Most remarkable, Ferguson wrote, is that aldermen “retreated” at a time when Chicago is “under intense national scrutiny” for the police shooting of Laquan McDonald that has triggered a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
“Such action signals to those watching and investigating . . . that its City Council either does not understand or lacks the will to embrace comprehensive and effective oversight,” Ferguson wrote.
Even without the audit function, Emanuel countered that there is “no doubt Chicago is ready for reform” in an apparent reference to Paddy Bauler, the infamous late alderman and saloonkeeper who was fond of the phrase, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”
“This is a new chapter and a new day for the city of Chicago. . . . You have to keep moving forward. And today, they moved forward. People will judge how significant a step. I happen to believe it was a significant step forward,” Emanuel said.
Prior to the final vote, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) urged her colleagues to “overcome our misgivings” and approve the stronger ordinance to solve a “crisis of confidence” among voters.
“It can only be solved if we lead,” Smith said. “Voices are pleading across this city for honest oversight. If we [weaken] this ordinance, we won’t quiet the skeptics.”
Ald. John Arena (45th) added, “We are on the one yard line. If we fumble now, that is what we will be remembered for.”
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), one of Khan’s earliest targets, rose to give his colleagues a “dose of reality.”
“Maybe I’m counting noses wrong. But I don’t see the votes to get there” for the stronger ordinance that includes the audit function, Moore said.
He added, “Rarely in a legislative body do you get everything you want.”
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said he rounded up votes for the watered-down ordinance that snatched the audit function away from Ferguson to put the long-simmering controversy of City Council oversight to rest.
“We have seen where these things have gone off track because of personalities. If you define the roles better in an ordinance,” you avoid problems, O’Connor said.
“Everything the inspector general is getting today is something everyone has been calling for at least two years. That controversy will be put to bed. What we’re not going to allow . . . is for the inspector general to say, `Communities don’t get a say in how the money is spent through their menus.’ It’s clear that one could come along and say, `It’s more economical to put all of those millions back into the general fund.’ But that takes away choice.”
Even with the changes, O’Connor argued that Wednesday’s vote is a “huge deal” and, “It needs to be acknowledged as that.”
Khan was hired four years ago by aldermen hell-bent on keeping Ferguson out of their hair. But he spent his entire term at war with aldermen who accused him of overreaching with a blanket request for their time sheets and with investigations that aldermen claimed embarrassed them unfairly and violated their rights.
If not for that fiasco, Wednesday’s vote would never have been taken, O’Connor said.
“Because of the poor start we had with him, that office was dead on arrival going into this discussion,” the mayor’s floor leader said.
“But there was genuine concern on the part of some aldermen who are generally considered to be pretty thoughtful as to how they would give over all of this control in one fell swoop. So, we tried to strike a compromise.”
Instead of empowering Ferguson, Burke and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) wanted to hire a replacement for Khan. They lost the war but won the final battle.
Neither powerhouse said a word during Wednesday’s debate, and Burke brushed past reporters after the meeting.
Instead, Ald. Will Burns (4th) carried the ball for the watered-down ordinance. He had nothing to lose, since he’s retiring to take a top job with Airbnb, a home-sharing website that’s regulated by the City Council.
Now that the worker’s comp program is walled off from Ferguson’s watchful eye, Arena introduced a resolution urging the City Council to explore the possibility of transferring control over the program from the Finance Committee to the city’s Law Department.