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Watchdog should stay, call ‘balls and strikes’ despite our friendship: Lightfoot

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot called the city's Inspector General Joe Ferguson "a person of integrity" and added: "His office is staffed with lots of people who are professionals and they’re gonna do their job. They're gonna call balls and strikes." | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Watchdog should stay, call ‘balls and strikes’ despite our friendship: Lightfoot

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said Thursday she wants and expects Inspector General Joe Ferguson to “call balls and strikes” during her administration and sees no reason their friendship would conflict with his role as a city watchdog.

Ferguson and Lightfoot served together in the U.S. attorney’s office.

When he was appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 to replace departing Inspector General David Hoffman, Lightfoot was among those who vouched for and recommended her friend Ferguson.

That close relationship has raised questions about just how independent Ferguson can be in a Lightfoot administration.

Ferguson has acknowledged that questions about his independence are legitimate, that they may become an issue when he starts digging into the Lightfoot administration and that he won’t hesitate to “pull the ripcord” if he thinks his friendship with Lightfoot poses a conflict.

On Thursday, Lightfoot was asked whether she wants Ferguson to stay on as inspector general and serve out the two-and-a-half years remaining on his term. Her answer was an unqualified yes.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson told Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times he would be willing to “pull the ripcord” and leave his post if his friendship with Lori Lightfoot poses a conflict. But she doesn’t think he should. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson told Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times he would be willing to “pull the ripcord” and leave his post if his friendship with Lori Lightfoot poses a conflict. But she doesn’t think he should. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“He can only be removed for cause. I see no basis to do that. And he’s involved in a lot of important work in the city. I have a lot of confidence in him and his office,” she said.

“I do not think he has a conflict. The fact that I’ve known Joe for a long time has never impeded his ability to do his job. I don’t expect it’s going to. He’s a person of integrity and I know his office is staffed with lots of people who are professionals and they’re gonna do their job. They’re gonna call balls and strikes.”

So, she sees no need for Ferguson to, as he put it, “pull the ripcord?”

“That’s a judgment he’s got to make. I don’t intend to do anything other than support the work of the IG’s office. I absolutely would never want him to do anything other than call balls and strikes,” she said.

What happens if Ferguson finds embarrassing stuff about her administration?

“So be it. We’ll deal with it,” she said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time studying IG investigations as well as audit reports to better understand what the challenges are in city government, as has my team. I think the inspector general’s role plays an incredibly important function and I expect them to continue to do so.”

Park District chief’s fate up in air

Although Ferguson’s future is apparently secure, the fate of Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly is not.

“He’s very highly regarded by a number of his peers and people across the city. But I have a lot of questions about equity when it comes to programming and resources that are devoted to parks, particularly across the South and the West sides. When we sit down, those are the kinds of issues I’m gonna ask him about,” she said.

Does that mean Kelly has a chance to save his $220,000-a-year job?

“I’m not gonna weigh in one way or another until I have an opportunity to go through what he has to say and also questions that I have about equitable distribution of resources,” Lightfoot said.

“I’ve been in meetings with him. He’s always well-prepared. He seems to enjoy the support of his colleagues. The Park District is gonna play a very big and important role this summer in helping us provide good, healthy activities for our young people in particular in neighborhoods.”

Scooter pilot

Lightfoot also expressed frustration with Emanuel’s decision to forge ahead with a pilot program to test electric scooters in Chicago with less than three weeks to go before leaving office.

“It’s a project that I have not been briefed on. Nobody asked my opinion about it. They certainly haven’t provided me with information, which I think they should,” Lightfoot said.

Does that mean she might pull the plug on the 2,500-electric scooter pilot scheduled to launch on June 15?

“I’m not in a position to say `yay’ or `nay.’ … But I think it would be appropriate for us to be briefed on it. All of these new things are issues that my administration is gonna have to live with,” she said.

“We have been very clear that we want to understand the nature of these projects because, if that doesn’t happen, it’s gonna be hard for me to support them.”

The Emanuel administration denied the charge of keeping Lightfoot in the dark and released a series of emails that appear to show her transition team was briefed about and signed off on the scooter pilot.

“We are OK with it moving forward,” Lightfoot transition adviser Sylvia Garcia wrote to a top mayoral aide on Tuesday.