City Council unanimously approves Deborah Witzburg as Chicago’s new inspector general
Now locked into a four-year term, Witzburg is free to confront what she calls the “debt of legitimacy” created by scandals involving two indicted pols: Ald. Edward Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Despite its long and sordid history of corruption, Chicago has been without a permanent watchdog for nearly eight months — ever since longtime Inspector General Joe Ferguson jumped to avoid being pushed out by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
On Wednesday, the $178,488-a-year void viewed as essential for a city embroiled in one of the biggest corruption scandals in its history was finally filled.
The City Council unanimously approved Lightfoot’s appointment of Deborah Witzburg, former deputy inspector general for public safety, to replace Ferguson.
The debate was more like a parade of praise for Witzburg, who had the confidence to resign as deputy inspector general for public safety to pursue the top job, with no guarantee she’d get it.
“I commend you for stepping aside, which not many people would do, and betting on yourself,” said Ald. Nick Sposato (38th).
“I hope I have with you just a fraction of the relationship I had with Joe Ferguson. I assure you, nobody will be calling you more than me.”
Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) said Witzburg “stands for transparency at a time when we need it.”
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) added, “Thank you for saying ‘yes.’ This is a huge responsibility to lead an office so crucial to good government. I’m really excited to see you in this role. I don’t think there’s anybody as qualified as you to lead this office.”
Speaking from the rostrum, Lightfoot said the independence of the inspector general is “sacrosanct. Period. Full stop. The integrity of the work has to speak for itself. It’s not about any individual. It’s not about personality. It’s not about ego. It’s the integrity of the work.”
With a fundamental mandate to “root out fraud, waste and abuse,” the audit function is critical, the mayor said.
“That requires collaboration and communication with the departments that are subject to the audit. It can’t be gotcha. It’s gotta be calling balls and strikes as you see them,” the mayor told Witzburg.
“We look forward to your work, your vision and your imprint on this very, very important function of city government...I wish you the best. Got get ’em.”
Now locked into a four-year term, Witzburg has the freedom to confront what she calls the “debt of legitimacy” created by the corruption scandals swirling around two former Democratic kingpins: indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
During her confirmation hearing, Witzburg told alderpersons there are “two kinds of costs to corruption.” There are “dollar costs” where “bad decisions and decisions made for bad reasons” cost the city money that is, therefore, unavailable to be “spent on other things.”
And there is what Witzburg called the “larger and darker specter.” That is, the more insidious “debt of legitimacy” caused by the never-ending cycle of public corruption.
“The city of Chicago operates at a legitimacy deficit with its residents. That, I think, is felt deeply by everyone who lives in and works for this city. That means that the city and its agencies and officials are not, sort of, entitled to the benefit of the doubt in the public view. People suffer from a sort of lack of confidence that the city of Chicago and its government are working in their best interests,” Witzburg said.
“That’s not the sort of problem that forms overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. But, it is all of our responsibilities every day to sort of make down payments against that deficit of trust and legitimacy.”
Witzburg has said she plans to do that by “bringing light into windowless rooms as they exist all over city government” and by using the experience she gained serving under Ferguson.
“It seems an immovable fact that, for the foreseeable future, police reform and violence reduction will be at the top of the city’s priorities,” she said.
“I can put my background in criminal prosecution and police oversight to good use the service of a whole of government approach to those mandates.”
Witzburg’s answers delighted committee members, who unanimously approved her appointment.
“The only question I had is why we didn’t do it sooner,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th).
“I congratulate the mayor for the appointment. Better late than never.”
Lightfoot clashed openly and repeatedly with Ferguson. After he left, she said his successor should understand “the importance of staying in their lane.”
That raised legitimate questions about whether Lightfoot was willing to appoint Witzburg even though she was chosen by Ferguson and worked together with him to produce reports highly critical of the Lightfoot administration in general and the Chicago Police Department in particular.
Lightfoot’s decision to choose Witzburg showed she was primarily concerned with shoring up her progressive bonafides amid complaints that she has not been nearly as transparent as she had pledged to be, given her campaign promise to “bring in the light” in the wake of the Burke corruption scandal.