Aldermen fear losing control as Inspector General audits ward superintendents

One week after the raid on the 34th Ward office of Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), City Council members are buzzing about an audit of ward superintendents by Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

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Inspector General Joe Ferguson during a recent interview with Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman.

Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has already stripped aldermen of authority over licensing and permitting in their wards and threatened to do the same with zoning.

Now, aldermen worry about losing a power that hits even closer to home: the ability to choose their ward superintendents.

One week after the raid on the 34th Ward office of former Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin, aldermen are buzzing about a “hiring oversight review” by Inspector General Joe Ferguson that could set the stage for stripping aldermen of their ability to fill a job that is now a Shakman-exempt position.

Austin hired her son, Kenny, as ward superintendent even though he lacked a valid driver’s license essential to drive around the ward to survey conditions.

“It scares me. I pray to God no [changes] because they’re the face of the ward. They’re the boots on the ground,” Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) said Wednesday.

“If your ward superintendent is right, everybody knows `em by name. That’s the rawest form of city services there is. Don’t take the ward superintendent away. They’re priceless.”

Ferguson could not be reached for comment. His spokesperson, Natalie Kuriata, said the hiring oversight review is aimed at determining if the ward superintendent’s job “should remain Shakman-exempt or not.”

That refers to the federal ban on political hiring in local government enacted in response to lawsuits filed by local attorney Michael Shakman.

Kuriata noted that the job of ward superintendent is the “only non-graded position” — meaning, there’s no qualifying exam — at the city’s third-largest department. That “political appointment” is a “remnant of the old days” before services were shifted to a grid system, she said.

During the review, Ferguson’s team is “meeting with ward superintendents to make them account for their time,” sources said.

Lightfoot is under pressure to cut costs to attack a budget shortfall she claims is “north of $700 million” before asking Chicago taxpayers for more money.

That has aldermen concerned Ferguson’s results could be used to argue that switching to a grid system for collecting garbage has made ward superintendents superfluous or minimized the need for that extra layer of bureaucracy.

A city sanitation truck.

Chicago several years ago dumped a ward-by-ward approach to trash pickup in favor of a grid system.

Sun-Times files

Two years ago, Austin defiantly defended hiring her son and argued there was nothing wrong with nepotism if the person getting hired does a decent job.

“If I can’t have somebody there that I trust, who am I gonna put there? Some lazy anybody? ... My people deserve better than that. And most of the people in our ward pretty much know my family,” Austin said at the time.

“Why is it so wrong for you to have your family member, your cousin or whatever working? Are you saying they don’t deserve to work either? . . . It’s so unfair for you to lambast us all the time when we have our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, whomever on the payroll.”

The day after the Sun-Times disclosed Kenny Austin’s hiring, Carrie Austin paid her son’s delinquent child support payments, lifting his license suspension.

“We did not know that you couldn’t get hired if you had arrearage. That they would [not just] take it out as they would normally for child support,” she said then.

Chicago’s 50 ward superintendents — one per ward — earn $75,408 to $121,188 per year — depending, apparently, on seniority.

There would be “hell to pay” if Lightfoot tried to strip aldermen of their power to fill that position, said former Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

“That’s about as bread-and-butter as you can get. That, and zoning,” Moore said. “The promise of basic city services and the ability to promptly deliver them is usually what helps get us re-elected.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), the most outspoken critic of Lightfoot’s executive order on aldermanic prerogative, said aldermen would “outright revolt” if they lost the ability to oversee sanitation issues that can make or break an alderman.

“Residents can forgive a lot of things and blame `City Hall.’ But missed garbage pick-ups, street sweeping, lot cleaning will always fall on us,” Lopez wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“The grid is fine, but aldermen need the ability and resources to address things when it fails. ... If a resident is missing a garbage pick-up, the supe can send a truck before the day ends. That’s not possible in a strictly grid scenario.”

Top mayoral aides have planned a series of closed-door aldermanic briefings Thursday on Lightfoot’s executive order ending aldermanic prerogative over licensing and zoning.

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