Independent contractor exemption suffers surprise Council defeat

SHARE Independent contractor exemption suffers surprise Council defeat

The Chicago City Council | File photo

One day after a blast from the Ethics Board chairman, a divided City Council got cold feet Wednesday on a proposal to relax ethics standards that apply to independent contractors employed by aldermen.

A plan championed by Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) to change the definition of “city employees” to exclude independent contractors and excuse them from filing ethics statements went down in flames.

The City Council defeated the change on a 24-21 vote, just a day after the Rules Committee had approved it.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel applauded the move. He argued that any move aldermen make should be to tighten ethics rules and provide more disclosure and transparency — not less.

Hairston stood her ground. She even threatened to file a lawsuit to force the issue and strike a definition of city employees she called “illegal.”

“Independent contractor has a meaning that is protected by federal law and we’re clearly violating that. . . . It was just recently reaffirmed in the Uber case,” Hairston said.

“It was suggested that maybe they come up with another name. But currently as it’s written, independent contractors . . . are not employees of the city,” she said.

The failed ordinance would have been retroactive to Jan. 1. That effective date would have excused roughly 45 independent contractors employed by aldermen from filing ethics statements disclosing their clients, what business they or their spouses have with other units of local government or companies doing business with local government.

Without the exemption, independent contractors will be required to file those statements and disclose other sensitive information, including debts, capital gains and real estate holdings. They will also be required to abide by the ban on gifts valued at more than $250.

Earlier this week, Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon accused aldermen of injecting “a very unhealthy secrecy into government for a privileged few.”

William Conlon. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

William Conlon. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

“Part of the disclosure is so people have to put out there if they have had income from an entity doing business with the city and if someone in their household got an income through somebody doing business with the city,” Conlon said.

“If they’re employed by the city, people ought to know about that. That’s the whole purpose of the disclosure. To disclose any inappropriate relationships. . . . If it is inappropriate, we should know about it,” he said. “There shouldn’t be this secrecy surrounding service to the city of Chicago for which they’re being compensated.”

On Wednesday, Hairston fired back at the chairman of Chicago’s reinvigorated Board of Ethics.

“It is not about secrecy or a privileged few or anything else. The law is very clear what an independent contractor is,” she said.

“There are other ways if they want them to report things that they can do that. But they cannot do that under the name `independent contractor.’ ”

When more and more aldermen asked to be recorded as voting “no,” Hairston at first tried to salvage the ordinance by asking for a voice vote.

But aldermen concerned about handing potential challengers an ethics issue demanded that the roll be called. That’s when 24 aldermen were recorded as voting against the change.

That wasn’t the only case of cold feet that aldermen experienced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

A controversial plan to let shooting ranges open in much of Chicago — and let minors use them if accompanied by parents or responsible adults — also stalled for similar reasons.

The image of shooting ranges in a city where the streets of all too many South and West Side neighborhoods are shooting galleries already made aldermen too uncomfortable.

Never mind that the city’s hands were tied by a federal appeals court ruling that overturned the existing restrictions.

“There was a question about some of the members fearful of their votes being described by political opponents as being in favor of guns, which is certainly not the case,” Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) said.

Pressed on how the ordinance can be salvaged to comply with the appeals court ruling, Burke said, “It has to be a little bit better explained to the members.”

Under Conlon’s leadership, the revamped Board of Ethics has been shedding its longtime image as a paper tiger.

Earlier this year, the board slapped former Uber executive David Plouffe with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a private account the mayor used to conduct city business without registering as a lobbyist.

On Wednesday, the board considered 25 more cases involving clout-heavy lobbyists who emailed the mayor, and either failed to register as lobbyists or failed to report the lobbying activity.

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