Baby step on road to City Council ethics reform

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The Emanuel administration apparently made enough progress in wringing illegal politics out of hiring, firing and promotions at City Hall to finally shed the yoke of a court-appointed monitor who’s been policing personnel decisions for the past decade.

Ending the federally mandated oversight, which cost Chicago taxpayers more than $20 million in legal fees and compensation for victims of the rigged employment system, is a significant reform.

And it also includes the administration’s adherence to a “do-not-hire” list of former public employees declared ineligible for city jobs because they were fired or forced to resign from other branches of government for alleged misconduct or corruption.

But leave it to a few Chicago aldermen to rain on the mayor’s reform parade by initially balking at the monitor’s request that they follow the same “do-not-hire” list when they’re filling City Council jobs.

Some aldermen called the criticism unfair, claiming they were never asked to comply.

Others said they were open to going along with the constraint, but wanted to know more about how it worked first.

And a few were miffed by the suggestion they were missing a golden opportunity to embrace a valuable reform as they ramp up their re-election campaigns.

Grumbling aside, this dust-up was just another reminder that too many aldermen still aren’t taking their ethics medicine.

And it invites another conversation about whether it’s time to shrink the size of the 50-member council, which — on a per capita basis — is the largest and most expensive big-city legislative body in the country.

Collectively, Chicago’s aldermen continue to put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

And, like most serial offenders, their track record is extensive:

  • Since 1973, more than 30 council members have been convicted of corruption and sent to prison.
  • Over the same period they’ve been little more than a rubber stamp for a succession of mayors.
  • And even when a handful of progressives argue successfully for reform, the results are usually watered down by an “old guard” that still controls the council.

For instance, an enlightened proposal aimed at preventing privatization fiascoes like the abominable parking meter deal has been languishing in a council committee for almost two years.

And when, under intense public pressure, aldermen grudgingly accepted the need for a legislative inspector general, they refused to provide the office with enough resources or authority to be an effective watchdog.

Recently, some council members have been angling to staff their offices and committees with more political hires, which is consistent with their tone deaf history of padding payrolls with friends, relatives and cronies.

A few council members have even been grumbling about losing a budget “slush fund” they’ve used over the years to underwrite the payroll padding.

But maybe the mayor’s personnel reforms, and pressure from watchdog groups, is starting to have an impact, because — miracle of miracles —there’s actually been an epiphany of sorts when it comes to the contentious do-not-hire list:

The entire council recently sponsored a non-binding resolution committing them to abide by the list, and the mayor’s legislative floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor, wants to make it binding.

If the council goes along with O’Connor’s proposal, that would be a step in the right direction.

But just a single step down a long road toward the kind of ethics reform the council needs and taxpayers deserve.

The kind of reform they’ve sidestepped numerous times over the past few decades.

The kind of reform that could tamp down the periodic clamor for a smaller, less expensive, more accountable City Council than the unwieldy, unethical legislative body we’ve been saddled with for decades.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel set the right tone by reforming personnel policies effectively enough to satisfy a federal judge and most good government advocates.

So if “better government” really is in the air at City Hall, let’s hope a stiff Chicago lake breeze blows it into the City Council chamber and the aldermanic offices.

Then we’ll close the windows so it fills every nook and cranny, and every alderman’s been forced to inhale a lungful.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

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