Streets and Sanitation plows deviated from their normal course to clear a path to Ald. Ed Burke’s fortress-like house after a major winter storm last year, City Hall’s inspector general said Monday.
The report from Inspector General Joe Ferguson came nearly 18 months after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed how the 14th Ward boss’ block was improperly plowed early and often in response to a 19.2-inch snowfall.
Buried deep in Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s routine quarterly report, he said investigators found snow-removal crews hit the powerful City Council member’s block on West 51st Street 46 times in five days after the fifth-largest winter storm in Chicago history paralyzed traffic on many local streets on Super Bowl Sunday last year.
“The elected official’s block was plowed before neighboring streets received service even though the official did not live on a main snowplow route, which receives priority plowing,” Ferguson wrote. “These actions were in apparent violation of [Streets and San’s] stated employee guidance and policies, including the city’s official snow program maps.”
Ferguson suggested the practice of favoring Burke’s block without reason had been going on for a long time, saying he found it “equally concerning” that an unidentified supervisor in Streets and San “was untroubled by the appearance of preferential treatment and assumed the route deviation was expected as a past practice.”
Nevertheless, the inspector general’s office did not to seek punishment of any city employee involved in the plowing that served the city’s longest-serving alderman so well.
“The investigation did not reveal deliberate preferential treatment, but rather a welter of fundamental misunderstandings of responsibilities and expectations in the snow program,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson began his investigation because the Sun-Times used city Plow Tracker data compiled by clearstreets.org to show how Burke benefitted from taxpayer-funded plow service again and again, even as neighbors in his working-class ward spun their wheels on snow-covered streets after the historic whiteout.
While nearby side streets became rutted and remained ice-bound for days, Burke’s lightly travelled 3900 block of 51st was cleared, salted and as passable as it is today within hours of the storm’s end.
The same pattern emerged after another snowstorm a few weeks later, in February 2015, the Sun-Times reported.
Burke, the council’s longtime Finance Committee chairman, and his wife, state Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke, live in a three-story, 5,600-square-foot home that looms large in a neighborhood of relatively modest ranch houses and bungalows.
When first asked about the Burkes’ most-favored-block status after the storm, the alderman’s spokesman claimed it was deserved because the 3900 block of 51st is “classified as an arterial street.”
That’s not true, the Sun-Times found. The nearest main route deserving of priority snow-removal service is a half-mile from the Burkes’ house.
Burke’s street was hit by Streets and San crews long before City Hall had cleared all the busiest streets and “vital” locations around town. Until that’s done, plows are not supposed to be re-directed to side streets, including where Burke’s house is.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has outfitted snow-removal equipment with GPS devices and published the tracking data online in real time in an effort to prove that no trucks are purposely sent to aid of those with clout before regular folks without political connections.
Emanuel — whose home block on the North Side did not enjoy Burke-style VIP treatment from his administration’s snow-fighting crews, according to the data — referred the issue to Ferguson’s office.
Emanuel’s Streets and San commissioner, Charles Williams, has said snowplow drivers claimed to use Burke’s block to turn around after completing a main route and did not intend their off-course wanderings as an homage to Burke.
In the newly issued report, Ferguson wrote, Streets and San has made changes to its procedures to work more efficiently after snowfalls.
The department “said it provided drivers and foremen with training on the changes and reviewed with them basic policies, procedures and rules,” according to the inspector general.
The spokeswoman for Ferguson declined to comment further.
It appears the Inspector General’s office only looked at the administration’s actions and not at Burke personally. The council did not give Ferguson’s office the power to investigate aldermen or their aides until after the snow-plowing incidents revealed by the Sun-Times.
A spokesman for Burke, who has been alderman for 47 years, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.