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City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis gets new director

Ken Williams, who will make $111,144 a year, joined the office last summer as a financial analyst. He replaces Ben Winnick, who retired nearly a year ago. Williams’ resume includes jobs with the CHA and Chicago Public Schools.

Chicago City Hall
A new director has been named to head the Chicago City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

With city revenues plummeting and federal reimbursement to cities and states uncertain, the City Council will need all the advice it can get to help dig Chicago out of the budget hole created by the coronavirus.

Just in time, the Council Office of Financial Analysis has a new director to run the operation, which has a total budget of $309,376 a year.

Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) has chosen Ken Williams for the $111,144-a-year job. He replaces Ben Winnick, who retired nearly a year ago.

Dowell said she received over 50 resumes and personally interviewed eight candidates she deemed “highly-qualified.” She chose Williams, who joined the office last summer as an analyst, because of his “extensive experience managing government budgets.”

Williams’ resume includes stints as director of financial planning and analysis for the Chicago Housing Authority; financial research analyst and director of financial controls for Cook County and its bureau of economic development and director of resource management and support for the Chicago Public Schools.

Prior to joining the financial analysis office, his most recent job was as principal for a consulting company that helped political candidates, political action committees and major donors comply with campaign finance laws.

“What impressed me most … was his thoughtfulness and creativity when discussing ways to improve Chicago’s fiscal situation. … His insights were well thought out while also being grounded in reality,” Dowell wrote in a statement to the Sun-Times.

In a follow-up interview, Dowell acknowledged she hired Williams as an analyst on the recommendation of Health Committee Chairman Roderick Sawyer (6th), former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

Sawyer said Williams was a loyal member of the 6th Ward Regular Democratic Organization who was “one of Brian Sleet’s best friends.” Sleet is the beloved political consultant to Sawyer and countless other African-American politicians who died of a brain hemorrhage in December 2018 at age 41.

“That’s how we got to be connected. Ken has been helpful to us on community events and things like that. He’s just a very good guy, a very astute mind. Somebody I do trust and talk to quite regularly,” Sawyer said Monday.

“He was somebody that I would love to have on my staff. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pay him what he would deserve. … I recommended him to Dowell at the very beginning. And when she thought about bringing him on as COFA chief, I obviously gave a favorable recommendation.”

The independent financial analysis office was created in 2014 to provide aldermen with expert advice on fiscal issues and avoid a repeat of the parking meter fiasco.

For nearly two years that reform was stuck in a stalemate over whether former Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) had the independence and policy expertise to lead the office.

Shiller ultimately withdrew her name, but the office was a bust, nevertheless.

Last fall, aldermen tried to breathe new life into the office.

Instead of allowing the Budget Committee chairman alone to request a financial analysis on a proposal impacting the city budget, any aldermen was allowed to make that request. The office was further required to produce activity reports quarterly instead of just annually.

The revised ordinance also transferred the power to hire a new director from a selection committee to Dowell alone, provided the City Council confirms the chairman’s choice by a two-thirds vote.

Although the analyst would serve a four-year term, a two-thirds vote also could remove that person without cause. A stipulation that the analyst could not have worked for the city for three years prior to being hired was eliminated.

At the time, Dowell said she drafted the ordinance to “take the brick” off the office that started with high hopes.

Former Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) was the prime mover behind creating the office before retiring from the Council to abide by his self-imposed, two-term limit.

Pawar argued an independent budget office has never been more important because of its “tremendous potential to help guide the recovery” after a “prolonged economic contraction” caused by the pandemic.

“In most cases, the aid that flows to cities and states after a disaster doesn’t go to the communities that need it the most. My hope is that the COFA office plays a role with Council to help guide those dollars to where they’re needed the most,” Pawar said.

“Now is the time for state and local governments to go really big and match the scale of the crisis with programs and policies that help address inequality and poverty. This office has an incredible opportunity to provide insight counsel and even prescriptive analysis about what to do next.”