Buck must stop at mayor’s desk when it comes to police and schools

A single democratically elected chief executive, Chicago’s mayor, ultimately should be in charge and held accountable.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks with a student at William H. Brown Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2021.

AP Photos

The buck has to stop somewhere.

In Chicago, that would be the mayor’s desk, as it should be. When it comes to the two most important responsibilities of municipal government — providing police protection and good schools — a single democratically elected chief executive, the mayor, ultimately should be in charge and held accountable.

That, to us, seems obvious. Focused responsibility brings focused accountability. It is the surest path, imperfect and frustrating as it may be, to an effective police force and successful school system. Diffused responsibility, through unwieldy elected boards, results in diffused accountability.

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We are strong advocates of grassroots democracy, but we are not starry-eyed or naive. Efforts to strip the mayor of Chicago of ultimate responsibility for the police department and public schools, in the name of greater democracy, are unwise.

Police and accountability

Two community coalitions have put forth separate plans for the creation of an elected civilian police oversight board, and last week Mayor Lori Lightfoot — concerned that those proposals go too far in limiting the powers of her office — asked for a few weeks more time to put forth a plan of her own.

The need for greater civilian oversight of the police is painfully obvious. Whatever Chicago has been doing in the way of “reform” in the last decade just isn’t working. CPD continues to fall short as a crime-fighting force and in its respect for civil rights. Just last week, the city’s inspector general issued a report excoriating the poor performance of the police department’s top brass during 10 days of looting and violence last spring.

We favor greater direct civilian oversight on everything from investigating police misconduct to negotiating police contracts to overseeing disciplinary hearings to nominating candidates for top positions. We favor companion budgeting reforms to direct more police dollars toward social services that address the underlying causes of crime.

But the mayor, not a commission, should retain responsibility for hiring the police superintendent, with the advice and consent of the City Council, and should have the final say in firing a superintendent. We also believe that when there is a disagreement between a civilian oversight board and the mayor — any mayor — on a matter of basic police policy, the final call should be the mayor’s.

Chicagoans will always look to their mayor, not a board of semi-anonymous commissioners — where no one person is forced by the spotlight to step up and lead — to respond to problems with the police. Chicagoans will always hold the mayor responsible.

Chicago schools and accountability

In the same way, we oppose any form of an elected school board that would take ultimate responsibility for the Chicago Public Schools from the mayor. We favor a hybrid board that would include some elected members but retain a majority appointed by the mayor. There must be a tight focus of responsibility. There must be a short tether of accountability.

We also, with all respect to those who continue to push state legislation to create a fully elected 20-member Chicago school board, question just how responsive such a board would be to the needs and demands of CPS parents and children. We can well imagine a highly politicized board controlled by — and fought over — charter school supporters on the one side and the Chicago Teachers Union on the other.

This has been precisely the problem in Los Angeles, where charter school advocates and unions waged a war for control of the school board in 2017, spending $15 million in supposedly low-key, community-based elections. The charter advocates prevailed, winning a majority of seats, and the board has been locked in ideological warfare ever since while failing to grapple with deep problems such as budget deficits, enrollment declines and academic achievement gaps.

This month in Chicago, after protracted negotiations between Lightfoot’s team and the Chicago Teachers Union, children finally began going back to school — to actual physical classrooms. They should have returned to their classrooms earlier, with the science of the pandemic clearly showing that they and their teachers would be safe to do so. But the teachers’ union fought it.

“We would never have opened without mayoral control,” Lightfoot told the New York Times. “It’s quite clear.”

We believe that is true.

Making a mockery of democracy

How long can a ballot be before it makes a mockery of democracy? Chicagoans on Election Day already must choose among hundreds of candidates for everything from president of the United States to water commissioner to member of the Cook County Board of Review. At what point is the ability of the voters to do their homework exhausted? How many of us know who we’re voting for when we vote for all those judges?

We favor the establishment of an elected civilian police oversight board and a hybrid school board, but it would be foolish to ignore the limitations of both. The buck must stop somewhere and, as best we can see, that would be the mayor’s desk.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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