Brown: Rare drama in City Council, but final act is a letdown

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Aldermen Will Burns and Ed Burke at the Chicago City Council meeting. Wednesday, February 10, 2016. Brian Jackson/ for the Sun-Times

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At the conclusion of Wednesday’s vote on a watered-down inspector general ordinance, there was a rare moment of hesitation and doubt in the City Council.

Which side had won?

As reporters and aldermanic aides hurriedly tallied the roll call, it seemed as if the entire Council chambers was holding its collective breath, everyone awaiting the official announcement from the city clerk.

In 30-some years of covering City Council meetings, I could probably count on one hand the number of occasions I’ve seen that happen, where the votes of individual aldermen truly mattered because the outcome was in question.

So let’s chalk that up as a victory for democracy in Chicago, even if the final totals again fell short of that ideal:25 to 23.

Bad guys win again.

That’s admittedly an oversimplification, but also an honest assessment.

OPINION

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Given an opportunity to do the right thing and open themselves up to the full scrutiny of the city’s inspector general office, the old bulls of the City Council once again outmaneuvered the reformers and defended their turf by halving the inspector general’s new powers.

On the plus side, Inspector General Joe Ferguson is now free to conduct investigations of aldermen and their staffs, a move the City Council had long resisted.

But after a flurry of high-pressure maneuvering that saw some aldermen switch sides during the meeting, the Council veterans succeeded in prohibiting Ferguson from auditing the many programs aldermen administer.

As Ferguson himself complained, that’s a significant loophole given Chicago’s unique status in allowing some City Council committees to carry out what would normally be executive branch functions, such as the multi-million dollar business of administering workers compensation claims.

The workers comp claims are the longtime personal fiefdom of Ald. Edward M. Burke’s Finance Committee. And Burke led the battle to limit Ferguson’s powers with help from Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th). Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) missed the meeting, but her opposition was also a key factor.

RELATED:Council OKs weakened inspector general ordinance

Burke never said a word from the Council floor about the proposal, but his intense interest was evident from the constant flow of other aldermen at his desk, reporting on their intentions and those of others.

One of the alderman on the cusp was newcomer Milly Santiago (31st), who had signed as a co-sponsor of what I’ll call the full-strength ordinance but was being pressed to reconsider.

Did she feel the pressure?

“Big time,” said Santiago.

I asked Santiago what form that pressure took. I can’t say I got a direct answer.

But I can guess that it could be pretty intimidating when the most powerful members of the City Council ask a rookie aldermen for their support, knowing she undoubtedly will need their help further down the line.

Despite that, Santiago ended up being one of the 23 “No” votes against substituting the watered-down version for the full-strength ordinance.

After it passed anyway and there was a second vote for final passage, she joined with the 29-19 majority in voting “Yes.” I don’t really have a problem with those who switched sides at that point, although most of the reform-minded aldermen chose to stand on principle.

Speaking of reform-minded aldermen, Ald. Will Burns (4th) wrapped up his political career by driving a stake through the exaggerated notion that he ever qualified as such.

In his final meeting as alderman before quitting to take a private-sector job, Burns carried the water for his City Council colleagues by serving as point man on their Inspector General-lite proposal.

He even invoked the individuals exonerated from Illinois’ Death Row as evidence of the dangers of putting aldermen under the oversight of an “overzealous prosecutor.”

Although a bright and thoughtful legislator, Burns was always more of a go-along, get-along guy on the Council, and he did his colleagues’ bidding to the end.

I’m sure they will be very grateful, so much so that they might not even wait the 365 days Burns is banned from lobbying the City Council before showing their appreciation. His new employer, Airbnb, is already locked in a dispute over the extent to which the city should regulate the fledgling industry.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also likes to think of himself as a reformer, took a hands-off approach to the Burke-O’Connor-Austin-Burns hijinks.

Emanuel was right about one thing. Reforming Chicago government is an evolutionary process, and this is one more step in that direction, he said.

But there was an opportunity to take two steps, and aldermen stumbled.

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