Brown: Aldermen poking themselves in the IG

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Chicago aldermen usually have very keen instincts when it comes to self-preservation.

But I think they are out-foxing themselves with some last-minute changes they are planning to make Wednesday in an ordinance that would finally give Inspector General Joe Ferguson oversight of the City Council.

After years of fighting against real oversight by a real inspector general, aldermen are apparently ready to swallow the bitter pill of bringing themselves under the investigative auspices of Ferguson’s office. Hooray.

In a twist, however, some aldermen have decided Ferguson should only be empowered to investigate allegations that they or their employees have broken the law.

Under their plan, Ferguson would be prohibited from performing the comparably mundane function of conducting audits or reviews of city programs that involve the City Council.


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In other words, the aldermen want Ferguson to put all his efforts into trying to find something for which he could get them indicted instead of diverting any of his resources to the important, but less sexy, responsibility of issuing reports about how the City Council might do a better job of conducting its business.

I have to admit that part of me thinks that if they’re going to be that short-sighted, Ferguson should just go for it and concentrate his limited resources on City Council wrongdoing, of which there is usually plenty.

I’m way more interested in seeing the inspector general refer cases to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution than the latest audit on ways to improve procedures in some program.

But that’s because I’m shallow.

A real inspector general for the City Council needs to be allowed to do both investigations and audits, as Ferguson’s office is already allowed in all other areas of city government.

The reason aldermen don’t want an inspector general poking around like an auditor is that they don’t want anyone embarrassing them by second-guessing any of the programs they administer. It’s a matter of turf and prerogative.

Chicago government is unique in that it entrusts many administrative functions to its legislative branch under the general theory that local control works best.

For instance, aldermen control which restaurants can have sidewalk cafes, which businesses can hang awnings, what streets get paved, where police cameras should go and the location of loading zone signs, among other things.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but those programs should be evaluated for their efficiency and effectiveness, when appropriate, just the same as they would be if entirely controlled by some city agency.

The big kahuna in City Council power is the Finance Committee, where veteran Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) is the chairman and regarded as the strongest opponent of granting oversight to Ferguson’s office.

Burke lords over a $100 million budget with authority to adjudicate workers’ compensation claims made against the city by civilian employees. Ferguson has tried previously to take a closer look at the program. Burke has refused to cooperate.

Burke’s committee also handles small claims against the city, such as who gets paid when their car hits a pothole.

The Finance Committee even has responsibility for administering the city’s program that entitles senior citizens to $50 annual sewer refunds.

Those would also seem like programs worthy of an occasional audit that examining their cost and whether there might be more efficient alternatives. Burke would be free to argue his case if the auditors got it wrong.

One of the things about program audits is that I never accept them as the gospel truth, rather an outsider’s opinion that deserves consideration.

A majority of aldermen are expected to push through their watered-down inspector general ordinance Wednesday, and I’m told there’s not much anybody can do to persuade them to do the right thing (although it would sure be nice to see some evidence that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had at least tried.)

Perhaps their resolve against audits will weaken after an aldermanic indictment or two announced by a U.S. attorney standing alongside a city inspector general.

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