Aldermen may clip Inspector General’s wings, even as they empower him

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There’s little doubt that Inspector General Joe Ferguson will be empowered to investigate aldermen and their employees when the City Council meets next week.

The only question is whether the long-stalled ordinance will be tweaked before the final vote to appease aldermen on edge.

On Thursday, City Hall sources said the ordinance may well be revised in a way that clips Ferguson’s wings and cuts off half of the oversight he exercises over the rest of city government.

A working group with representatives from every one of the City Council’s caucuses is finalizing a change that would limit 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 and whether programs can be run more efficiently would be off-limits when it comes to the City Council.

Sources said the change is aimed at appeasing aldermen who fear that Ferguson may embarrass them by auditing the $66 million program that gives each alderman $1.32 million each year to spend on a menu of neighborhood improvements.

There’s also concern that Ferguson might stick his nose into programs aldermen have chosen to keep under their control, such as sidewalk cafes.

Those fears are legitimate, since Ferguson has already audited the protracted process of issuing loading zone and disabled parking signs as well as residential street resurfacing carried out through the menu program.

But there’s yet another reason for the change: it’s about protecting the turf of the City Council’s most powerful alderman, Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th).

In 2012, Burke clashed with Ferguson over access to workers’ compensation claims administered by the Finance Committee. After failing in his behind-the-scenes attempt to block Ferguson from investigating aldermen, sources said Burke would at least like to wall off the workers’ comp program from another one of Ferguson’s audits.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, said he hopes Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) can “hold her coalition together” to pass an ordinance that does not handcuff Ferguson.

“Without the audit function, much of the activity of the City Council will remain in the dark. The audit function is critical to seeing how aldermen, their committees and staffs operate. Ferguson has used the tool effectively with city government, and it can be extremely valuable in holding aldermen accountable,” Shaw said Thursday.

“A lot of aldermen don’t want a watchdog with a loud bark and sharp teeth anywhere near them. They want to create the facade of oversight without the reality. That’s what they did with Faisal Khan, who was hogtied and hamstrung from day one. While this would be an improvement from Khan’s lapdog status, it’s not what taxpayers need and deserve after watching a legislative body that’s seen more than 30 of its member sent off to jail in recent decades.”

Shaw said he has little doubt that Burke is the biggest proponent of the amendment because he has “the biggest committee and the biggest program.”

“Burke is the center of the City Council, but the spokes go out to a lot of other aldermen. A lot of aldermen depend on him,” Shaw added.

Smith could not be reached for comment. Ald. Ameya Pawar (47<th), another mover behind the ordinance empowering Ferguson, refused to comment on the behind-the-scenes maneuverings.

Shaw said it’s too soon to say whether the long-stalled ordinance will survive intact when the City Council votes next week.

“I wish I could predict victory. But at this point, I can only hope for it,” he said.

Four years ago, Ferguson went public with a long-simmering jurisdictional dispute: Burke’s decision to deny the inspector general access to databases related to the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ comp program for civilian employees.

At the time, Burke’s staff was refusing to release that information on grounds that “duty disability” is governed by state law, not city ordinance; Ferguson’s investigative powers are limited to misconduct; and Finance Committee staffers fall under the jurisdiction of the now-departed Legislative Inspector General.

Ferguson countered that he routinely conducts audits to review city programs, identify waste and inefficiency and recommend ways to prevent it. He referred to Chicago Sun-Times stories that identified waste, abuse and mismanagement in the $45 million-a-year disability program for police officers and firefighters.

“Blocking (my office’s) access is especially egregious in this case, as recent press reports have detailed anecdotal evidence of a city program very much in need of outside review, hopefully leading to improvements and savings to taxpayers,” Ferguson wrote. “The best way to determine whether there is waste, fraud or abuse in this city-funded program administered by the city for the benefit of city workers … is to subject the program to a thorough review.”

Ferguson went on to say that Burke’s jurisdictional argument “ignores the plain language” of the ordinance that created the inspector general’s office.

“This is a program without oversight,” he said then. “That, in and of itself, renders it a risk factor. It is a program through which $100 million a year passes. High amounts of money constitute a risk factor.”

Instead of empowering Ferguson, Burke and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) want to hire a replacement for Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, whose tumultuous term ended in November.

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