Editorial: Can you trust the City Council? Here’s a test

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The Chicago City Council is of the apparent opinion that the only good inspector general is an inspector general who cannot inspect. The Council abhors the very thought of somebody looking over anybody’s shoulder.

Is that not the very essence of the Chicago Way?

One week from now, on Nov. 16, City Council Inspector General Faisal Khan’s four-year term comes to an end. And that seems to be just fine with the Council, which did its best to thwart Khan all along and shows no eagerness to fill his post.

Which is too bad for the rest of us.

A good inspector general roots out corruption. But this City Council, where 29 aldermen have been convicted of felonies since 1972, sees no need for that.

And a good inspector general saves taxpayer money by ferreting out wasteful spending. But this City Council, which just passed the biggest property tax hike in Chicago history, sees no need for that, either.

It is essential that the Council hire a new inspector general immediately, no dragging it out. The Council took 18 months, whining about it the whole time, to hire Khan. And the Council must give its new inspector general the budget and powers to do the job right.

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By design, Khan’s hands were tied from the start by rules limiting how he could go about doing his job. He didn’t get the budget he wanted or needed, and he wasn’t allowed to accept anonymous complaints. The city Board of Ethics had to sign off on all investigations, and the subject of any investigation had to be tipped off in advance. If the aldermen had to hire an inspector general — they basically were publicly shamed into doing it —they didn’t want one who dug too deeply into their affairs or those of their employees.

It is not enough to replace Khan. The de-fanging must end.

Fortunately, as we’ve argued before, there is actually a much better and simpler solution: Extend the authority of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson to keep tabs on the City Council as well. Ferguson’s office — which has purview over City Hall but not the Council — has a strong track record and sufficient investigative tools; and Ferguson has made clear he is prepared to take on the bigger job. A combined inspector general’s office could be up and running in weeks.

Last year, the Council put together an ordinance that would merge the two offices. It included special provisions to protect against overreach by the executive branch — the mayor’s office — into the business of the legislative branch — the Council. It guarded against, for example, the mayor’s office gaining political advantage over aldermen through leaks from the inspector general’s office. And it ensured that the aldermen would have a meaningful say in the hiring of future IG’s.

The bill has languished in committee for more than a year.

These are not ordinary times. At time when local taxes of all kinds are about to soar, Chicagoans want to feel more confident that their money will be well spent, not wasted — or secreted away — by an infamously untrustworthy City Council. A fully empowered inspector general is the least the Council could do to reassure the taxpayer.

If the Council can’t pull itself together and get the job done, Mayor Rahm Emanuel should broker a solution.

Every day the Council fails to hire a new and empowered inspector general is another day the Council has failed miserably to earn your trust.

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