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Inspector general wants to strip aldermen of power to pick their ward superintendents

In an explosive audit, retiring Inspector General Joe Ferguson concludes ward superintendents “should be subject to the standards and procedures ... generally applicable under the city’s hiring plan” — and therefore, politics should not be a factor in deciding who gets the job.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago aldermen have been able to pick their own ward superintendents — but they shouldn’t, according to Joe Ferguson, the city’s soon-to-be-former inspector general.
Sun-Times file

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

Now, aldermen are mobilizing to stop the mayor from depriving them of a power that hits even closer to home: the ability to hand-pick their ward superintendents.

In an explosive audit, retiring Inspector General Joe Ferguson has concluded:

“The ward superintendent title does not meet the legal requirements for a Shakman-exempt designation and, therefore, should be subject to the standards and procedures, as well as political factor prohibitions, generally applicable under the city’s hiring plan.”

Ferguson was referring to the Shakman decree, which banned political considerations in city hiring and firing, though some positions are exempt. A federal hiring monitor had been in charge of enforcing that ban, but a judge dismissed that monitor in 2014, and the job fell to Ferguson.

Rachel Herndon of the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs described the findings in a July 9 email to aldermen and announced the inspector general’s audit will be the subject of three virtual aldermanic briefings on Wednesday.

Aldermen fear the decision to hold aldermanic briefings signals Lightfoot’s intention to act on Ferguson’s recommendation. If she does, she will have a political fight on her hands even from her closest City Council allies.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Education Committee chairman, said an alderman’s political future rises and falls on such basic services as garbage pick-up, snow, ice and graffiti removal, rodent control and recycling services.

“I can’t have someone who is beholden to someone else, who may not do the job that I need them to do because they’re at the bidding for somebody else who may have an axe to grind with me or another alderman. That just puts us in a very precarious situation,” Scott said.

“I would be opposed to having somebody that I don’t know, that I can’t trust, who might not be from my ward, who cannot identify with my constituents to be out there servicing my constituents, I need somebody that, if they’re gonna be on the front line, they know my constituents and what their needs are and how to identify with them. I’d like to be able to choose that person.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Lightfoot’s assistant floor leader and chairman of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, said aldermen and their hand-picked ward superintendents work in tandem “as a buffer and a check on bureaucracy.”

“Our constituents want somebody that’s going to represent them and check the bureaucracy that, sometimes, doesn’t get things done,” Cardenas said.

“If you take that away [from the alderman], then there’s no accountability.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, said the work of the ward superintendent is the meat-and-potatoes of being an alderman.

“We don’t want to give up any resources directly impacting our community. … It’s about getting what the community wants done. I mean — good service is, of course, good politics. But it’s not, in my opinion, necessarily something that’s a partisan issue. But it’s something that impacts the community greatly,” he said.

Chicago’s 50 wards each have one superintendent, earning $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 Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken Council critics.

“If you force aldermen to deal with someone who is not as committed as they are to ensuring the delivery of city services — if it’s just another bureaucrat — there’s no guarantee that the delivery of services will match what has previously been expected by the residents. What recourse will the alderman have to hold that person accountable?” Lopez said.

Lopez called the move “another attempt to de-stabilize aldermen and their roles” in neighborhoods.

“I think the mayor’s ultimate goal is to take as much away from aldermen as possible in the hopes of proving that there is no need for having us here and pushing, ultimately, for a reduction in the City Council,” Lopez said.

The Chicago Sun-Times lifted the veil on Ferguson’s audit of ward superintendents one week after the 2019 federal raid on the 34th Ward office of now-indicted Ald. Carrie Austin, former chairman of the Council’s Budget Committee.

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

In 2017, she 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.