The City Council will forge ahead with an expedited search for a new Legislative Inspector General — and possibly untie the new appointee’s hands — now that Faisal Khan’s tumultuous, four-year term is ending, a powerful alderman said Tuesday.
Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th), the newly slated Democratic candidate for Circuit Court clerk, said she’s proceeding with the appointment of a five-member “blue-ribbon” search committee because the votes are simply not there to empower the city’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen.
“Right now, it’s just not the will of the entire Council,” Harris said, apparently referring to persistent opposition from Chicago’s two most powerful aldermen: Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) and Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th).
More than a year ago, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, persuaded 35 aldermen to co-sign an ordinance shifting the power to investigate aldermen and their employees from Khan to Ferguson, provided the IG is prohibited from launching investigations based on anonymous complaints.
Harris said she refused to hold a hearing on the ordinance because her colleagues didn’t want to deal with it before the 2015 election. She noted that it’s a lot easier to put signatures on an ordinance than it is to persuade aldermen to vote for it.
“Nobody’s really expressed that they’re afraid of [Ferguson]. I don’t think that they’re afraid of him. I couldn’t tell you why. I really couldn’t,” Harris said.
Instead of pushing for a vote on an ordinance that’s certain to fail, Harris said she plans to proceed with the search process outlined in the ordinance that created the $354,000-a-year Office of Legislative Inspector General.
It calls for the appointment of a five-member committee comprising “members of the community who have exhibited the highest moral character, integrity and/or a demonstrated commitment to public service including but not limited to deans of colleges, retired judges and director of civic and community organizations.”
They will be charged with reviewing candidates who have never been convicted of a felony and have spent a “minimum of ten years” in federal, state or local government as a “law enforcement officer, an attorney or a judge.”
As New York City’s former inspector general and a former Queens County prosecutor, Khan met those criteria when he was hired four years ago by aldermen hellbent on keeping Ferguson out of their hair.
But he has been at war with aldermen who accused him of over-reaching with a blanket request for their time sheets and investigations that, aldermen claim, embarrassed them unfairly and violated their rights.
For his part, Khan chafed at a lack of resources and investigative rules that tied his hands in an attempt to turn him into a political patsy. They include: a ban on anonymous complaints; sign-off by the Board of Ethics before launching investigations; and a requirement that the subject of any investigation had to be tipped off in advance.
On Tuesday, Harris said she’s willing to revisit and relax some of those restrictions if her colleagues believe that’s the appropriate course to take.
But she argued that Khan has only himself to blame for the disastrous four-year tenure that ended with the City Council’s handpicked inspector general filing a now-dismissed lawsuit against the city seeking the $1.7 million he claimed he needed to finish the job he was hired to do.
“I don’t think his hands were tied,” Harris said. “We all can pick and choose when we execute an office what we really want to focus on.
“There’s this myth out there that all aldermen are just doing horrible things. Well, most of ’em aren’t. They’re really busy trying to run communities, save the world where they live. I don’t think there’s a lot to unearth,” she said. “But, everybody needs a watchdog to keep you on the right track.”
Harris said Khan got off on the wrong foot with his blanket demand for aldermanic time sheets dating back years. The always outspoken Austin was livid about the request.
“He was looking for something that he never found. He focused a lot on the wrong issues. To focus on time-keeping is the wrong issues. By and large, 99.9 percent of these aldermen have staff that come in and work like dogs for 10, 12-hours-a-day without being compensated for it,” Harris said.
“There are other things that you could look for. Now, I’m not going to put it out there for the new guy to come in . . . But if you’re looking at corruption and all of those things, they’re glaring,” she said. “These aren’t things that you’re going to unearth in a time sheet.”
Khan’s term expires Friday. Although aldermen dragged their feet for 18 months before choosing Khan, Harris said she hopes to have his replacement picked by December. But she ruled out an increased budget for the new sleuth, particularly after approving a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and imposing a first-ever garbage collection fee of $9.50 a month per household.
“He paid himself quite a bit of money. He paid himself more than Ferguson gets paid,” Harris said.