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Burke, Austin block vote on empowering IG to investigate aldermen

The City Council’s two most powerful aldermen on Wednesday temporarily derailed a groundbreaking change decades in the making.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone until Feb. 10 a vote on an ordinance that would have empowered Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees.

A few years ago, Burke clashed with Ferguson over access to workers’ compensation claims administered by the finance committee.

Last fall, Austin lashed out at Ferguson for what she called the “witch hunt” investigation that forced the resignation of her son.

Kenny Austin resigned from his $72,384-a-year city laborer’s job after an internal investigation concluded he crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license, then had a co-worker cover for him to avoid taking a mandatory drug test.

For months, Burke and Austin have been waging a behind-the-scenes campaign to preserve the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Instead of empowering Ferguson, who is appointed by the mayor and has jurisdiction over all city employees, Burke and Austin wanted to hire a replacement for Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, whose tumultuous term ended in November.

Burke brushed past reporters seeking his comments about the parliamentary maneuver Wednesday.

The always-outspoken Austin argued once again that empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen would be a mistake.

“I believe in separation of power. Two different branches of government: the executive and the legislative. That’s what I believe in. Ain’t got nothing to do with Joe Ferguson. Nothing at all. I just believe that to my soul. . . . It’s the executive branch and it’s the legislative branch. And we are elected separately,” Austin said.

Although she would rather find a replacement for Khan, Austin acknowledged that a “large number” of aldermen are “more inclined” to empower Ferguson.

“The ordinance needs to be tweaked so that it will be stronger — so that we’ll have clear understanding of what the duties and roles will be,” she said. “It’s not to water it down. It’s to make is stronger. If we water it down, you all [in the media] will see it.”

“We don’t mind being investigated,” she added. “At least I don’t, because I don’t have anything to hide. Neither do my employees have anything to hide.”

Burke and Austin are not the only ones with political qualms about empowering Ferguson.

Earlier this week, Ald. Will Burns (4th) questioned what “protections” were built into the ordinance to prevent aldermanic candidates or developers angered by zoning and land-use decisions an alderman makes from filing baseless complaints.

“We tell people ‘yes’ or `no.’ And sometimes when you tell people ‘no’ and you make difficult decisions . . . you could anger those people and they could file complaints and . . . abuse, unfortunately, the ethics process to harass and to seek retaliation against an alderman,” Burns said.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, on Wednesday created a “working committee” to entertain possible changes to the ordinance. It includes Will Burns along with representatives from every one of the City Council’s caucuses.

“If there’s a change someone wants to make, bring it to us. Let’s talk about it,” said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), one of the prime movers behind the ordinance empowering Ferguson.

“As with any piece of legislation, I’m sure there will be some cleanup, some clarification. That’s why the working group was created. My sense is there is no momentum or will to re-open the legislative inspector general conversation. If there are changes, it will be to the ordinance [empowering Ferguson]. Otherwise, we’ll have a vote next month.”

After waiting months to get the City Council’s independent budget office off the ground and find someone to run it, Pawar took Wednesday’s delay in stride.

“Like the budget office, it’s a marathon. It’s endurance. You just keep plugging away. That’s what we’re going to do,” Pawar said.