Editorial: Are aldermen in it for you, or just for themselves?

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Joe Ferguson, inspector general of the city of Chicago, speaks during the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force’s first community forums to hear from residents before making recommendations for change within the Chicago Police Department at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, Tuesday evening. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Let’s see if we have this right: A good investigator should be blindfolded and handcuffed.

Because God knows what dirt he’ll turn up if he’s set free to do his job.

This has always been the shifty-eyed thinking of the Chicago City Council, which has resisted oversight by an inspector general for years. And now, just when we thought a new day might be coming, they’re at it again — pretending to welcome oversight by Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson while busily stripping away at his powers.

The shameless aldermen responsible will tell you they are making only “non-substantial” changes in an ordinance, to be voted on Wednesday, that would give Ferguson oversight over the Council. But don’t believe it. And don’t give the Council an iota of credit for good-government reform if they approve this gutted ordinance.

Ask yourself instead what they’re trying to hide.

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As Fran Spielman reported in the Sun-Times on Friday, a group of aldermen wants to change the proposed ordinance in a way that would keep Ferguson from peeking into whether Council programs could be run more efficiently. That’s a big part of what Ferguson does now for the city agencies and departments he already oversees.

Could it be that some of the programs the Council runs would be revealed as bloated and pointless?

The part of the aldermen’s secret machinations most true to form, sources say, is that these fundamental last-minute changes to the ordinance will be presented as “non-substantial,” meaning there will be no legal requirement that the changes be subjected to a significant vetting process. The changes will be ushered along as if we’re talking about fixing misplaced commas.

Is a Council so cynically inclined just begging for oversight by a fully empowered inspector general?

We thought you’d ask.

We’re told the ordinance is being trashed in back rooms at the behest of aldermen who fear Ferguson will dig deeply into a $66 million program that gives each alderman $1.32 million a year for neighborhood improvements. The alderman also fear Ferguson might sniff around programs such as sidewalk cafes that are under aldermanic control. And then there’s the possible intrusion onto the turf of powerful Ald. Edward Burke (14th) , whose Finance Committee administers workers’ compensation claims, something Ferguson long has wanted to take a peek at.

The debate over inspector general powers heated up last November, when the Council let the four-year term of legislative inspector general Faisal Khan sputter to an unceremonious end. By design, Khan never had the budget or the powers to properly oversee the Council. That perfectly suited a majority of the alderman, who think the only acceptable IG might be the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Once Khan left, the good-government solution was obvious. Expand the authority of Ferguson, who already oversees most of the rest of city government, to cover the Council, too. Ferguson’s office has a good track record.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, it appeared the Council would do just that. We thought they’d finally been shamed into doing the right thing. But we underestimated their capacity for shame.

This is a City Council that has seen 29 of its members convicted of felonies since 1972 and that recently passed the biggest property tax in history. A better City Council would welcome the kind of oversight that proves they’re not crooks and not wasting your money.

The ordinance as drawn up — giving full authority to Ferguson’s office — will get the job done. When it comes up for a vote on Wednesday, the Council should reject any changes that weaken it.

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