The first Hispanic woman ever to serve as Chicago’s corporation counsel vowed Wednesday to improve the Law Department’s dismal record of minority hiring and speed compliance with a consent decree guiding federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
Celia Meza was Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s counsel and senior ethics advisor when the mayor promoted her to replace Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner, who was forced out in the political fallout from the police raid on the home of social worker Anjanette Young.
At the time, Lightfoot claimed not to know about Flessner’s attempts to block WBBM-TV (Channel 2) from airing bodycam video of the raid, which showed a crying, naked Young repeatedly asking officers what was going on as they continued to search her home. Police, it turns out, had raided the wrong address.
During Wednesday’s confirmation hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, Black Caucus Chairman Jason Ervin (28th) asked Meza how she could possibly provide legal representation to the mayor and the City Council when the two groups, at times, have divergent interests.
“You serve at the pleasure of the mayor. … How do we, as City Council, get assurance that our issues, our concerns can be adequately addressed by someone who serves at the pleasure of someone else?” Ervin said.
Meza vowed to “maintain the interest of the corporate entity at all times.” If the mayor’s legal needs ever run counter to those of aldermen, Meza said she would be the “first to authorize” counsel for “whoever needs representation.”
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Ervin. He wants aldermen to have their own legal counsel.
“Why not create a situation where that representation already exists — especially in an environment where members of our body may not feel that the corporation counsel truly can effectively represent them with the guillotine hanging over your head,” Ervin said.
Meza stood her ground.
“I guarantee you I can effectively represent you. Theoretically in my career, there’s always been a guillotine over my head. At any given point, the client can decide they don’t want you,” she said.
“Should you guys, the Council, have your own own representation or somebody similar to the mayor’s counsel role that I had? By all means. I’d recommend that we hire a Latina and/or an African-American to do so. But, like everything else in this city, we run on what’s available in the budget.”
As the first Latina ever to serve as corporation counsel, Meza is more sensitive than her predecessors to the need to diversify the Law Department’s 295 staffers, most of them attorneys.
She got her start as law clerk for Alan Page, the former Bears and Vikings defensive tackle who went on to serve as chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“I have tasked individuals with providing me with up to date statistics on the number of diverse attorneys and hires we have in the department — the diversity percentage of our outside counsel and the diversity of any retained experts,” she said.
“The Law Department must do better. Not can. Must.”
Meza noted she and an African American were the only minority law clerks who worked for the Minnesota Supreme Court. Both were hired by Page, who is now retired.
“It is up to those individuals in charge of hiring to make the change that is needed. There are qualified minority candidates to be hired. And the individuals responsible for doing so must make it their priority to make that hiring happen,” she said.
“Justice Page did that for me. And I have made it my personal mission to do that for others.”
The promise to improve minority hiring was music to the ears of Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), an attorney specializing in criminal defense.
“After I talked to her, I’m sure she meant that they `shall’ do better,” Brookins said.
“We’ve been fighting with the corporation counsels in the past … [about] how there’s been a paltry amount of African American and Latino representation in the Law Department for both summer internships and attorney positions. … I look forward to helping her recruit and retain qualified African American applicants.”
Meza accepted the “correction” from Brookins.
“I shall do better,” she said.
As for CPD’s slow walk toward consent decree compliance, Meza said speeding up the process is of “utmost importance.” That’s why the Law Department has two attorneys — and soon will hire a third — to “handle all matters related to the consent decree.”
Indicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) was “glad to hear that.”
He pointed to “the millions of dollars that we spend each year in settlements and lawsuits, a lot of that being the police department.”
“The consent decree is absolutely critical. I’m glad to hear that commitment that you have to staying on that, making sure that we’re meeting the document production. Making sure that we’re doing the reforms that we need,” he said.