Mayor Johnson is behind the curve in naming top leaders for key city departments

As he marks his first 100 days in office, Johnson has yet to give the public a sign of who he may choose to fill vacant top posts at planning, transportation, housing and public health.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson answers question from the press at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

With 100 days in office, Mayor Brandon Johnson must work harder to fill top vacancies in his administration.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times (file)

Chicago faces challenges on any number of fronts, from improving downtown while redeveloping the South and West sides, to rethinking public transportation, to dealing with the lack of affordable housing all across the city.

So it’s troublesome that Mayor Brandon Johnson has yet to name new commissioners to lead the vacated top posts at the key city departments of planning, transportation and housing — three bread-and-butter issues that are vital to Chicago’s survival and livability.

The empty commissionerships and the open lack of alacrity in filling them — as well, Johnson has yet to name a new health commissioner after the awkward firing of Dr. Allison Arwady — threaten to become emblematic of the new mayor’s administration, which last week marked the early milestone of 100 days in office.

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Granted, the top spots at planning, transportation and housing are now vacant because the commissioners — Maurice Cox, Gia Biagi and Marisa Novara, holdovers from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration — resigned this month, not because Johnson outright fired them.

But top-level resignations are customary when a new mayoral administration takes over. Johnson and his team should have had replacements on deck and at the ready.

In fact, Johnson and his 400-member transition committee ought to have been scouring Chicago, and frankly the rest of the country, to secure the best new department leadership since winning the mayoral primary in April.

Doing so would seem to be especially important if the administration is to have any serious chance at accomplishing even half of the ambitious plans outlined in the transition team’s 223-page blueprint for Chicago’s future.

For instance, the report calls for increasing the tax base, making Chicago a global leader in logistics, food and agriculture, and advanced manufacturing, while also redeveloping the city in a way that is equable for Black, Brown and Native American communities.

A commissioner who can handle a lift that heavy — and we suspect Cox could have managed it, given his previous work in Detroit — isn’t easy to find. But Johnson has had time enough to look since winning the mayoral runoff April 4. The public at the very least should be aware by now of a short list of professionals capable of handling the task whom the administration is considering.

Same goes for the other departments — housing in particular, with the migrant crisis on top of that agency’s already full agenda.

Mayor should have hit the ground running

Certainly, each of the departments has a network of deputy commissioners and project managers who can keep things operating from day to day. There’s no real fear of a department collapsing because it doesn’t have a top commissioner.

Make no mistake: Johnson had solid leadership at planning, transportation, housing and public health when he took office.

But if he didn’t want to keep the department bosses he inherited, then he was duty-bound to hit the ground running (or soon after) with new players who could execute his vision.

After all, voters didn’t elect Johnson just to keep the ship afloat. Chicago cannot move forward with a foot-dragger or a caretaker on the Fifth Floor. The city needs a practical visionary who can assemble a solid leadership team with top-notch skills to execute.

That’s what Johnson promised when he ran for the job. He vowed to bring dynamic new leadership to City Hall that would make the city better and improve the lives of all Chicagoans.

That’s a hard enough promise to keep even under normal circumstances. And yes, pretty much every mayoral candidate makes the same vow.

But no mayor can come close to fulfilling that promise if critical city departments go without top leaders who have the vision to conceive important projects — and the skills to get them out the door.

Johnson needs to fill those vacancies with capable, quality folk. And soon.

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