Chicago is required to have a chief administrative officer; it hasn’t for decades

The city’s inspector general cited the Hilco smokestack demolition debacle as one of 11 “missed opportunities” where interdepartmental coordination could have been improved had a chief administrative officer been on the job — as is required under city code.

SHARE Chicago is required to have a chief administrative officer; it hasn’t for decades
Chicago City Hall.

Chicago is required by code to have a chief administrative officer. It hasn’t — going back at least through the Richard M. Daley administration.

Sun-Times file

Chicago’s municipal code requires that a chief administrative officer be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council — but Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her predecessors have ignored that mandate, setting the stage for “poor coordination” and “finger-pointing” among city departments, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said Tuesday.

Witzburg cited the botched Hilco smokestack demolition in Pilsen as just one of 11 “missed opportunities to promote efficiency and economy through interdepartmental coordination” that might have been different, if only the chief administrative officer’s job had been filled.

Other examples include: fairness and consistency in the disciplinary process for Chicago police officers; information sharing among departments that might have developed a strategy to reduce the $250 million in settlements over five years stemming from police wrongdoing; lack of consistent standards for selecting and evaluating capital improvement projects; and a failure to communicate that affected the maintenance, cost and life span of police vehicles.

Poor interdepartmental communication was further blamed for missing the 60-day deadline for releasing video of use of force incidents involving Chicago police officers and $5 million in spending over 10 years to serve 3,000 young people at Chicago’s Juvenile Intervention and Support Center “without knowing whether it created positive or negative outcomes,” the advisory states.

“Over the years across a variety of projects,” the inspector general’s office “has identified lapses in good coordination among city departments. And that’s handicapping the city’s ability to deliver effective and efficient city services. The municipal code speaks specifically to the need for coordination among city departments and requires the mayor to appoint an administrative officer, among whose duties is ensuring coordination among city departments,” Witzburg told the Sun-Times.

“That position has been vacant during all of this administration and all of the recent predecessor administrations. It’s supposed to be an administrative officer appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council,” added Witzburg. Her office “has recommended that the mayor appoint such a person for two reasons. Doing so would improve coordination, and the law requires the mayor to do so and following the law isn’t optional.”

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, Witzburg’s predecessor, concluded the city’s “negligence and incompetence” allowed a demolition dust storm to blanket Little Village in April 2020, just as the pandemic was getting started.

City officials were warned the Easter weekend implosion could cause “almost cataclysmic” harm and were advised to take precautionary measures, but failed to do so, Ferguson concluded, blaming Hilco and three city officials in two departments — Buildings and Public Health — for poor planning for the implosion of the nearly 400-feet-tall chimney at the old Crawford coal-fired power plant.

When the structure was brought tumbling down, it spewed a massive dust cloud that covered homes, yards, cars and everything else in the area near the plant.

On Tuesday, Witzburg acknowledged there is no way of knowing whether the Hilco debacle could have been prevented had a chief administrative officer been in place.

But, she said, “In that investigation, we identified a failure to communicate or intervene when there was a change in plans from the contractor. … We can’t have a situation where we have more than one city department with responsibility for making sure something doesn’t go wrong, and then it does go wrong, and we’re just pointing fingers across departments.”

In a March 13 letter to the inspector general, Lightfoot’s chief of staff Sybil Madison “strongly” disagreed with Witzburg’s claim that “a lack of adequate communication and coordination among city departments has been a common or widespread problem at the root of various adverse events and inefficiencies.”

Madison further claimed Witzburg has provided “no concrete explanation” of how the appointment of a chief administrative officer “might have some tangible benefit that could have prevented or mitigated the adverse outcomes” the inspector general identified.

“Chiefs of staff since at least the early 1990s have managed these functions working closely with other officials to optimize the communication and coordination necessary for effective management. … The current administration has carried out these functions very effectively under this organizational approach,” Madison wrote.

Lightfoot, her chief of staff and chief operating officer hold regular meetings with city department heads to deliver programs requiring coordination across multiple city departments and city agencies, Madison said.

“This comprehensive approach allows for better and more efficient coordination among city agencies and departments than a single officer could achieve,” the chief of staff wrote.

Veteran political observers, who asked to remain anonymous, also questioned the wisdom of a mayoral-appointed chief administrative officer confirmed by the City Council.

They noted it is the job of the mayor and his or her senior team to carry out the mayor’s agenda and ensure city departments and agencies communicate. No mayor “would or should allow their executive management team to answer to anybody but them,” they said.

“The people hold the mayor accountable, and that’s how it should be,” one veteran observer said. “If the code says otherwise, it needs to be changed.”

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