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Emanuel urged to resolve stalemate stalling council budget office

The appointment of former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) to lead become the Chicago City Council's first-ever financial analyst — at a salary of $107,000 a year — has been stalled in an aldermanic power struggle. | Sun-Times Library

The prime mover behind the City Council’s $485,000 independent budget office is urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve as mediator to resolve a power struggle that has stalled the reform for more than a year.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said he is heartened by the fact that Emanuel is claiming credit for the reform on his campaign website — without mentioning that the independent budget office has yet to get off the ground because of a dispute over who will lead it.

The office was created more than a year ago to provide aldermen with expert advice on mayoral spending, programs and privatization and guide the City Council through Chicago’s $20 billion pension crisis.

The reform is stuck in the mud because of a stalemate over whether former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) has the independence and policy expertise to lead the office as the first-ever, $107,000-a-year City Council Financial Analyst.

Pawar has waged a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to block Shiller because he believes other candidates interviewed were more qualified and independent.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) is equally determined to engineer the appointment of Shiller. In fact, Austin is furious about Pawar’s efforts to undermine Shiller’s candidacy and impugn her integrity by disclosing interview information that was supposed to remain confidential.

The last thing Emanuel wants to do two months before the mayoral election is to mediate a dispute between warring City Council factions and risk alienating one side or the other.

But, that’s precisely what Pawar is urging the mayor to do.

“He should claim credit. He did help pass the ordinance. Now, we need his help to get the office up and running and hire its first director,” Pawar told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It’s ironic that the legislative branch needs the executive branch to assert greater influence over the budget-making process. There’s a pool of candidates, but no agreement on one candidate. The last meeting was in September. It’s December. The mayor can serve as mediator. It would be great if he just pushed a little so we can get this initiative moving.”

David Spielfogel, a senior adviser to the mayor who serves as Emanuel’s point-man on ethics reform issues, said the mayor has no interest in playing the role of mediator.

“The mayor was proud to support the effort to pass landmark legislation creating an independent financial analysis office for City Council. He has encouraged City Council to fully staff it, but that process lies with the aldermen who oversee it,” Spielfogel wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Pawar noted that the independent budget office could play a pivotal role in resolving the pension crisis.

By December 2015, the City Council must decide whether to raise property taxes — or find other new revenues — to fund a state-mandated, $550 million payment to shore up police and fire pension funds.

Aldermen must also find an additional $50 million in annual revenues to save the Municipal Employees and Laborers Pension funds to supplement a 56 percent increase in Chicago’s telephone tax that staved off a pre-election property tax increase.

“We know there is going to be a deficit next year and the year after. Lots of people are putting revenue options on the table. We need to be drilling down on every one of these ideas independent of the executive branch,” Pawar said.

“What we need is a healthy push-and-pull. Not mayor versus City Council or mayor versus this block of aldermen or that block of aldermen. Just a healthy tension. We all owe the taxpayers that much.”

The independent budget office has its own sub-head in the “ethics reform” section of Emanuel’s campaign website.

“Rahm … worked with the City Council to create an independent budget office – the City Council Office of Financial Analysis – to provide objective and independent analysis of the annual budget, proposed public-private partnerships, and major policy proposals for consideration,” the website states.

Pawar and Austin are protagonists in a second power struggle that has stalled another ethics reform for which Emanuel is claiming credit: empowering Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen.

Earlier this year, Pawar helped Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, line up 35 aldermen to co-sign an ordinance shifting the power to investigate aldermen and their employees from Legislative Inspector Faisal Khan to Ferguson, provided the IG is prohibited from launching investigations based on anonymous complaints.

Austin and Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) lobbied their colleagues behind-the-scenes to sit on the ordinance on grounds they would be making a grave mistake by empowering Ferguson.

Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) has yet to hold or schedule a hearing on the ordinance. Sources said she has no intention of touching the political hot potato before the Feb. 24 election.

That’s especially true now that Khan has filed a lawsuit against Emanuel and several committee chairman seeking to compel the city to give him the $1.7 million he believes is needed to complete his term and finish the job he came here to do.

“We need a hearing. If it goes to a hearing, it passes. But a lot of aldermen want to wait to see what happens with that [lawsuit] before taking any action,” Pawar said.

Emanuel is expected to address both stalled reforms — and other outstanding issues — during a forum Thursday hosted by the Better Government Association (BGA) on “reform, ethics and good government issues.”