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Finance Committee, without Burke for 1st time in decades, gives up workers’ comp

Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) gets ready to chair his first Finance Committee meeting since longtime Chairman Edward Burke (14th) was deposed. To O'Connor's left is Burke's longtime top aide Marla Kaiden. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Without Ald. Edward Burke (14th) as chairman or even in the room, the City Council’s Finance Committee agreed Tuesday to transfer control over Chicago’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program from the committee to the Department of Finance.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) was chairing his first Finance Committee meeting since Burke resigned the chairmanship. Burke surrendered the post earlier this month, a day after being charged with attempted extortion; he’s accused of shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

For 30 years, Burke had presided over the Finance Committee like a king on his throne. And facing the first meeting in decades without the gavel in his hand, Burke didn’t even bother to attend.

This from the devout Roman Catholic who last year skipped a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican to preserve his attendance record as the Lou Gehrig of the Chicago City Council.

The contrast between Burke’s preening, autocratic style and O’Connor’s unassuming, collaborative approach was evident from the outset of the worker’s comp debate.

Ald. John Arena (45th) demanded to know why the program was being moved to the comptroller’s office and not to the Law Department, as the Progressive Caucus proposed a month ago, only to have their ordinance buried in the Rules Committee until Burke was charged.

“Then, an epiphany happened and we decided this is a great idea,” Arena said sarcastically.

“I find it a bit insulting that I was the lead sponsor and didn’t even get a call to say, `This is how we’re gonna deal with this problem.’ How is that collaborative?”

O’Connor responded that there was “no disrespect intended.”

He simply wanted to complete the transfer by April 1 without slowing down or disrupting payments to city employees injured on the job; the program has 5,000 active cases.

“If we do not make payments to the firefighters and the police for their medical expenses, we run the risk of being cited by the [state] commission and getting fined heavily, then having the ability to administer taken away where they will put us under the auspices of an outside entity that will do this at a significantly higher dollar amount,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor noted that while the Law Department handles court cases stemming from worker’s comp claims, “from the standpoint of making payments, cutting checks and making sure that they’re all being made, it would appear to most people looking at the problem that the comptroller’s office would be the appropriate place to ensure those things were being done.”

The Finance Committee has “30-to-35” full- and part-time investigators charged with determining if an accident occurred.

Whether that’s a sufficient number to determine if employees are actually injured will be “informed by” a forensic audit scheduled to start in the coming weeks by the accounting firm Grant Thornton.  Results “will be shared with this Council incrementally as the information becomes available,” O’Connor said.

Under questioning from Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), O’Connor also agreed to provide aldermen with information on worker’s compensation claims denied by the city and the racial breakdown of those involved.

At one point during a meeting that included approval of three settlements totaling $1.36 million, two of them police-related, O’Connor politely urged his chatty colleagues to “move our private conversations elsewhere” so political gadfly George Blakemore could be heard.

“Thank you. That’s a big change,” said Blakemore, a fixture at City Council meetings.

It was also a big change for O’Connor, who considers Burke a friend and has refused to evict Burke from the third-floor suite famously raided by federal investigators.

“It’s incredibly hard for him [Burke]. For me, I just came to work today and did one more function than I otherwise would have,” O’Connor said after his maiden voyage.

“The work isn’t difficult. The circumstances under which it’s fallen onto my desk [are] just unfortunate.”

O’Connor, who doubles as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, was asked about the difference in style between himself and Burke.

“We’ve always been different people,” he said. “I’ll continue to be who I am and we’ll go from there.”

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