Inspector General or Inspector Clouseau?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
The former is a title for a job that, done right, shines a bright enough light on a government agency and holds enough of its public officials accountable to increase honestly, efficiency, transparency and accountability.
It’s a civic watchdog’s dream.
The latter is the inept French detective immortalized by Peter Sellers in a series of big screen “Pink Panther” comedies.
His lame antics were enough to make Sherlock Holmes turn over in his fictional grave, and serious watchdogs blanch.
The two extremes come to mind following a recent Better Government Association examination of budgets, staffing, authority and impact in seven IG offices that oversee government in Chicago: City administration, aldermen, parks, housing, schools, community colleges and public buildings.
Transit agencies, including the CTA, are now under the purview of a state IG.
Collectively, the seven city IG offices produce hundreds of investigations every year, but two — the Housing Authority and Public Building Commission — don’t even release their findings, so we don’t know what they’re doing, and the overall track record of the others is mixed when it comes to busting and rooting out Chicago-scale corruption schemes.
The good news: Their audits and investigations have led to nearly 250 employee terminations, resignations and suspensions, and the disqualification of a couple dozen vendors.
But most of the disciplinary actions stem from minor, low-level infractions, including residency violations, harassment allegations, mismanagement and theft.
And there’s a curious shortage of sweeping, high-profile investigations in a city with an infamous history of shady deals, outsized scams and 30-plus aldermen sent off to prison.
So what’s the problem? And why aren’t the internal watchdogs catching bigger fish in their nets?
The IGs blame it on too few investigative tools, and too little legal independence, financial firepower and political backing to launch or complete large-scale probes; and an isolation from other watchdog offices that prevents collaboration on major cases.
Most lick their wounds quietly, but not the quintessentially enfeebled lapdog — City Council IG Faisal Khan — who is feuding publicly with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and powerful aldermen over his limited power and skimpy budget.
Khan appears to be on the way out, but the dustup has a hidden benefit: It focuses attention on smart ways to expand the scope and impact of the city’s internal watchdog work, including the possible creation of a centralized inspector general’s office, modeled after the New York Department of Investigations, to oversee City Hall, the Council, and the sister agencies, and to give the office broader powers, greater independence and more resources.
New York’s watchdog agency dates back to the 1870s — the “Boss” Tweed era — and it has an annual budget of $21 million to investigate elected officials, public employees, and contractors.
The office doesn’t need permission to investigate anything, it has complete access to city computers and records, and it can issue and enforce its own subpoenas.
New York’s IG can also marshal and direct resources wherever they’re needed, even across agency lines, which means a sweeping investigation won’t be sidetracked by a lack of manpower or jurisdiction.
Observers say the model could work in Chicago, and they’re right: One watchdog with a loud bark, sharp teeth and the tenacity of a pit bull could be an extraordinarily valuable anti-corruption weapon, and we’d love to see Emanuel fulfill one of his old campaign promises by embracing the concept.
Sadly, most of our elected officials prefer bumbling lapdogs like Inspector Clouseau, which is fine when you’re choosing an “oldie” to watch on Netflix, but not when you’re trying to clean up a city with a history of corruption like Chicago’s.
That dog has to hunt.