Mayor shoots down departing inspector general, says aldermen should choose ward superintendents

“Having somebody who isn’t aligned with the alderman’s vision about what they need — doesn’t necessarily come from the community, doesn’t know what the community needs are — that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Lightfoot said Thursday.

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Chicago City Hall

Chicago’s aldermen should retain the power to hire their own ward superintendents, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

It looks like the City Council will not be deprived after all of a cherished political power: hand-picking ward superintendents, who can make or break an alderman.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made that clear Thursday, shooting down an explosive recommendation from retiring Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

After a two-year audit, Ferguson concluded the ward superintendent’s job 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.”

But Lightfoot said Thursday she has no intention of fighting that political battle. She’s not about to go near what she called, that “third rail.”

“Members of the City Council have to have the tools that they need to be able to address pending issues of immediate concern to their residents. And that includes quality of life issues, particularly around garbage and trash and vacant lots,” she said.

“Historically, that’s been done through a ward superintendent who’s connected into Streets and Sanitation and CDOT so that they can run point on those issues from the alderman. Having somebody who isn’t aligned with the alderman’s vision about what they need — doesn’t necessarily come from the community, doesn’t know what the community needs are — that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Implied but not stated is that the mayor already has a strained relationship with the Council, having suffered her first legislative defeat over the issue of aldermanic prerogative. She’s not about to make things even worse in the weeks and months leading up to the city budget and an almost certain battle over how to spend $1.9 billion in federal relief funds.

Lightfoot said she “understands the concerns” Ferguson articulated about the Shakman decree that banned political hiring and firing. Policing that decree fell to the inspector general after a federal judge released the city from court oversight and dismissed a federal hiring monitor.

The mayor also acknowledged there are “probably things that we can do to improve the system” of hiring ward superintendents — but, she added: “Taking away that tool from the aldermen given the localized needs that are there—that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Lightfoot’s decision to play good cop to Ferguson’s bad cop puts the mayor at odds with her own Department of Human Resources, but undoubtedly will be music to aldermen’s ears.

During virtual briefings on the audit this week with small groups of aldermen — briefings tailor-made to avoid violating the Open Meetings Act — Ferguson was faced with “universal opposition,” according to Education Committee Chairman Michael Scott Jr. (24th).

Some aldermen were so dead-set against the idea, they asked whether their local ward superintendent could be transferred out of the Department of Streets and Sanitation and onto the local alderman’s staff, Scott said.

The inspector general told them that would not be possible, since ward superintendents are empowered to write tickets, a function of city government.

“For somebody like me, who has so many vacant lots and businesses that may not be doing what they need to do, his ticket-writing function is like, imperative to me. I can’t get my lots cut that are not city-owned without writing a ticket to those folks,” Scott said.

Scott said he was not assuaged, either, by Ferguson’s claim that existing ward superintendents would be “grandfathered in” and that the new apolitical hiring rules would take effect, only after current ward supes retire.

“I’m OK right now because my ward superintendent is there and I know he’ll be there for a couple more years. I know he’s not set to retire. My angst is when he is not there any longer and then, getting someone not knowing my ward. Not knowing my constituents and the ins and outs of my ward,” he said.

“It would just be difficult and, I think, a really hard hill to climb as it relates to a learning curve.”

In a press release accompanying his audit, Ferguson recommended the Department of Human Resources “immediately remove” the ward superintendent’s job from the “exempt titles list” and conduct “all future hires … in accordance with the processes and procedures under the city’s hiring plan.”

That means minimum qualifications, a “competitive interview process” to identify the “best-qualified candidates” and prohibiting “political factors and considerations” from invading the selection process, he wrote.

“An improperly classified position can negatively affect training, productivity, and development not only within the role itself, but in public perception of political influence and bias,” Ferguson was quoted as saying.

“Shakman-exemption applies only to titles with the authority to make policies or involve duties with a certain threshold of political sensitivity. The ward superintendent title has neither.”

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