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City Council playing 'three-card monte' to dodge oversight

City Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan

The Office of the Legislative Inspector General (OLIG) in Chicago has been the subject of heated debate recently, not for its strides for transparency and ethics in this city, but for its very future.

OPINION

Sitting in the City Council’s Rules and Ethics Committee is an ordinance that proposes merging the OLIG with the City’s Inspector General (OIG). On the surface, a merging of the offices seems to streamline the investigation process, however, the realities surrounding a merger of the offices and the current debate arising out of the proposed ordinance are two very different things. The proposed ordinance fails to address significant holes in oversight authority, and despite the praise from most of the City Council for their own proposal, the ordinance has sat in committee for almost six months without any apparent movement forward.

This inactivity shows the Council’s true intentions regarding reform. Taxpayers are being conned by a very effective game of three- card monte by City Council, with the results being, unfortunately, predictable. While taxpayers try to keep track of who can investigate whom, the fact that current investigative authority is inadequate is discretely slipped out of view. The execution of this game by the Council is well practiced and particularly disquieting in light of the rapidly approaching aldermanic elections.

Even if it were to be believed that the proposed ordinance was a sincere attempt to strengthen ethical oversight and not simply a PR stunt to pacify Chicagoans hungry for accountability, the ordinance in its current form has not been adequately vetted. The ordinance has a number of problems that can be spotted at a glance.

There is a glaring failure to clarify authority over review of campaign filings. Anonymous complaints, a valuable protection for any whistleblower, are still prohibited against aldermen. And the newest amendment to the proposed ordinance provides for the creeping of the City Council’s influence over who is appointed to investigate allegations of a Council member’s misconduct.

These obvious issues are unlikely to be the only ones. Particularly for oversight of our elected officials, an ordinance drafted without careful consideration is as likely to create problems as it is to solve them. The relatively recent debacle concerning the city’s parking meter privatization stands as a testament to unforeseen consequences arising out of hasty municipal action.

In its three years of existence, the OLIG has gained experience overseeing City Council members that is unmatched by all other city agencies. The OLIG came into existence to fill a void that did not appear by happenstance; for years no agency conducted active investigations into our elected aldermen. The experience and knowledge accrued by the OLIG during its investigations of not only the 50 members of City Council, but also hundreds of City Council employees, should not be discarded lightly.

Not surprisingly, the OLIG has encountered problems while attempting to fulfill its mandate. The single largest barrier to meaningful oversight has been a lack of institutional support from the City Council. Whether that lack of support has materialized as uncertainty regarding OLIG funding or some council members outright opposition to OLIG inquiries, the Council’s seeming unwillingness to embrace ethical oversight has acted as a drag on the OLIG’s time and resources.

But that does not mean that an ordinance that combines OLIG and OIG, without proper consideration, is the solution. If the Council acts without truly embracing accountability, Chicagoans will simply be trading in an old set of institutional problems for a new set, with no assurance the new set is preferable.

Faisal Khan is Chicago’s Legislative Inspector General, overseeing the City Council.