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Mihalopoulos: Watchdog not yet unleashed on City Council

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Sun-Times

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Chicago’s taxpayers waited nearly three decades for last week’s City Council vote giving the inspector general’s office power to investigate aldermen and their aides.

And IG oversight of the Council might not yet become reality for another four weeks — unless Mayor Rahm Emanuel finally injects himself into an issue he has carefully danced around so far.

The aldermen voted on the ordinance at their meeting on Feb. 10, passing it by a 25-23 margin. The measure states that it “shall take effect upon passage and approval.”

It’s not as simple as it sounds, though. An ordinance isn’t in force until the following Council meeting, when the aldermen make the routine move of approving the previous meeting’s Council “journal,” as they call their minutes.

There’s only one way to avoid further delay — for the mayor to sign the ordinance now.

OPINION

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Unless the mayor does that, the IG would not actually have the right to start probing aldermen and their staff members until the next time the full Council meets, on March 16, said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for City Clerk Susana Mendoza.

The mayor’s top spokeswoman told me Tuesday she would look into the matter and get back to me.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has made clear he and his staff are ready to go.

His office came into being in 1989, in the first few months of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22-year reign. Although Daley publicly supported having an IG with power over his administration as well as the legislative branch, the aldermen shielded themselves from the prying eyes of the new office.

Under Ferguson and predecessor David Hoffman, the IG’s office became a powerful force for City Hall reform, referring many cases of official misconduct to the feds for criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, the aldermen avoided having any internal watchdog looking over them until 2011, when they created the Office of the Legislative Inspector General.

As we reported recently, the legislative inspector general was a costly experiment of dubious value. The first and only person to hold the job of legislative inspector general, Faisal Khan, was paid nearly $800,000 for what was a part-time gig, city records show.

“I worked full-time and remained full-time during my entire four-year tenure,” Khan said on WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” last week.

But the invoices that Khan personally signed and sent to the Emanuel administration for payment show he had billed the city for an average of barely 26 hours a week. In January 2012, for instance, he was paid $250 an hour for workweeks of 18, 13, 16.5 and 15.5 hours, and he was free to take other side jobs.

The aldermen severely limited Khan’s power anyway. After his farcical term ended in November, it finally seemed a majority of the aldermen would submit to the scrutiny of Ferguson’s office.

Yet, the Council opened the way for Ferguson to investigate them only after curbing the office’s powers, prohibiting it from conducting audits of aldermanic programs.

Emanuel has stayed out of the IG fray since taking office. Wounded politically by the Laquan McDonald case, he needs the aldermen more than ever, and he never has shown any appetite for injecting himself into the IG dispute.

As things stand now, Emanuel has until the next meeting to veto the ordinance approved last week or sign it so that it becomes law immediately.

The mayor should get out his pen and not make Ferguson wait another month to at last get started on an important job.

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