Editorial: Put Council under lens of effective inspector general

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We thought the City Council was going to put installing an effective inspector general on its list of New Year’s resolutions — a year ago. Maybe even the year before that.

But the Council engaged in its trademarked foot-dragging until Nov. 16, when former City Council Inspector General Faisal Khan’s four-year term ran out. Since then, there hasn’t been a Council inspector general at all.

Now, some aldermen are planning a showdown next week in hopes of getting a competent and empowered City Council watchdog. They want to expand Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s authority — now limited to other parts of city government — to include investigating aldermen and their employees. The aldermen should stick to their guns, and other aldermen should join them. The city needs this to happen.

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This is a Council that has seen 29 aldermen convicted of felonies since 1972. It could use an inspector general who knows how to sniff out corruption. It’s also a Council that late last year signed off on the biggest property tax hike Chicago has ever seen. An inspector general who exposes wasteful spending will reassure taxpayers that the extra revenue from the tax hike will be used efficiently.

The Council’s previous attempt at installing a legislative inspector general descended into farce, by design. Khan didn’t have a big enough budget. He couldn’t accept anonymous complaints. Any investigation had to get a stamp of approval from the Board of Ethics. The target of any investigation had to be told in advance. All in all, the Council did a good job of making sure its inspector general wouldn’t rock the boat.

A plan to replace Khan by expanding the reach of Ferguson’s office has languished in the Council, bottled up by aldermen who don’t like it. In response, some aldermen are dusting off “Rule 41,” which allows a majority of alderman to vote to extract an ordinance that has been bottled up in committee for at least 60 days. The ordinance has provisions to guard against executive branch overreach and ensures that aldermen would have a meaningful say in the hiring of future IG’s.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said Wednesday she has gathered signatures from 26 aldermen — a majority — to use Rule 41 to get the ordinance onto the Council floor, where it finally would get an up or down vote. Since then, additional aldermen have indicated they will climb aboard. If the pledges translate into votes, that will be enough to pass the ordinance.

But this is the Chicago City Council, where historically votes have switched at the last moment. Aldermen who say they back a Rule 41 procedure may be missing in action when the actual vote rolls around. A politically weakened Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t expected to be able to twist many arms on this one.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) have made no secret of their distaste for expanding Ferguson’s office to cover the Council. They want to keep Ferguson’s office at a distance and replace Kahn with another separate IG who will oversee only the Council. If that is the option the Council selects in the end, it must ensure the new IG is given the budget and authority necessary to succeed.

On Friday, Ald. Patrick J. O’Connor (40th) said more than 30 aldermen support putting to Council under the purview of Ferguson’s office and that he expects that option to be the only one considered at Monday’s meeting of the Committee on Workforce Development. He predicted it will be approved by the full Council on Wednesday.

By making such a mess of the inspector general’s office, the Council has hardly inspired confidence. It’s time for aldermen to show they can get this right.

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