Inspector General Joe Ferguson empowered to investigate PBC

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Inspector General Joe Ferguson would be empowered to investigate the Public Building Commission — and guaranteed $200,000-a-year plus .04 percent of “projected work in place” — under a mayoral plan advanced Monday that partially honors a four-year-old campaign promise.

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to extend Ferguson’s investigative powers to the PBC, the Chicago Park District and the City Council.

Instead of honoring the promise made during a joint news conference with Ferguson’s predecessor David Hoffman, Emanuel spent two years in a cold war of sorts with Ferguson.

The two former adversaries buried the hatchet last fall, when Emanuel re-appointed Ferguson to another four-year term with the unwritten understanding that the inspector general would step down after helping the city get out from under the Shakman decree and the costly constraints of a federal hiring monitor.

In early June, Ferguson decided to stay on — and possibly serve out his new four-year term — after dramatically improving his once-contentious relationship with the mayor.

Less than two weeks later, Ferguson assumed the all-important power to police city hiring in the post-Shakman era after U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier released Chicago from the 42-year-old Shakman decree and dismissed federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan.

On Monday, the City Council’s Budget Committee approved the mayor’s plan to expand Ferguson’s authority yet again.

The ordinance empowers Ferguson to investigate the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission that oversees construction of police and fire stations, libraries, schools and other public buildings and audit its programs to make certain the contract-rich agency is spending its millions wisely.

For the first time, the ordinance also provides Ferguson with a guaranteed budget to carry out those oversight functions. It would be $200,000-a-year plus .04 percent of the “projected work in place” for the upcoming year.

“It’s a lot of money. But they wanted to put a good face on it and make it look like we were doing something meaningful,” said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th).

“Hopefully, he won’t have to use it and, if he doesn’t, it should come back to us.”

The PBC has a “contracted IG” — former Chicago Public Schools inspector Maribeth Vander Weele — whose term expires at the end of this year.

During Monday’s debate, Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) demanded to know how many investigations Vander Weele has produced for the $325,000 she has been paid over the last two years.

When a PBC attorney told Burke that Vander Weele had “closed out about a dozen cases,” Burke demanded to see the documentation.

“I don’t imagine that’s a very lengthy report,” the alderman said facetiously.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, has called the PBC ordinance a “good first step” toward honoring Emanuel’s “unfulfilled” campaign promise.

But Shaw has said the BGA “looks forward” to Emanuel “honoring the rest of his campaign pledge to expand the city IG’s power to include other ‘sister’ agencies, including the Park District.”

Three years ago, Ferguson accused the PBC of shortchanging minority contractors by “grossly overstating” participation, inadequately policing the set-aside program and stonewalling the city inspector general’s requests for documentation.

Still pending is a controversial ordinance co-signed by nearly three dozen aldermen that would eliminate the Council’s handpicked and handcuffed inspector general — and shift the power to investigate aldermen to Ferguson.

The ordinance has yet to get a hearing, in part, because of opposition from two power players: Burke and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

“He already has enough on his plate. To heap that on [the same plate] — I would rather keep a separate so that individual can focus on this body,” Austin said Monday.

“Not that I don’t want Inspector General Ferguson investigating us. I just feel like, `Here’s another layer for you. Here’s another layer for you.’ No. We need to be separate.”

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