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Andy Shaw: City Council needs watchdog, not lapdog

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Consider this shameful reality: After four-plus decades of corruption in Chicago’s City Council — more than 30 aldermen hauled off to prison — the Council still hasn’t embraced real reform.

Its first legislative inspector general, Faisal Khan, vacated his office recently after an ineffectual term programmed to fail by a restrictive ordinance that made him a toothless lapdog unable to fight corruption aggressively.

The FBI took custody of Khan’s files and computers and may review allegations he couldn’t investigate. We’ll see where that goes. But the overall situation is still unsettled.

OPINION

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Most city departments are monitored by Joe Ferguson, an inspector general with enough investigative tools to be effective.

But key aldermen have blocked efforts to extend his jurisdiction into their turf in place of a legislative IG.

More than 20 Council members, led by co-sponsors Michele Smith (43) and Ameya Pawar (47), proposed doing that last May — let’s call it the “merger” plan — but they’ve been unable to get a hearing on their ordinance.

The opposition is led by two powerful “Old Guard” committee heads — Finance Chair Ed Burke and Budget Chair Carrie Austin — who apparently don’t want a real watchdog sniffing around their offices and staffs, particularly Burke’s Finance fiefdom and the patronage-rich, multimillion-dollar worker’s compensation program it administers with minimal oversight and accountability.

But now there’s pushback.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32), a reliable reformer, tried to force a vote on the merger proposal at last week’s Council meeting, but he was delayed by a procedural obstacle.

He can try again, but it may not be necessary because 30-plus aldermen signed a letter demanding a hearing on the merger ordinance, which is stuck in a committee chaired by Mayor Emanuel’s floor leader, Ald. Pat O’Connor.

Smith and Pawar are also pursuing a different angle — a “Plan B” — that would empower a new legislative IG with investigative tools Khan never had. Ferguson would keep watching the rest of city government.

The Better Government Association prefers one IG with enough muscle and manpower to hold city departments and the City Council accountable — centralized oversight is more efficient and less costly — but this may be a time not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The new proposal for a legislative watchdog is deficient in a couple ways — the IG can’t conduct audits or autonomously enforce subpoenas — but it still offers meaningful reform by guaranteeing adequate funding and eliminating several of the absurd requirements that hogtied Faisal Khan, including:

• Approval from the city’s Ethics Board to launch an investigation;

• A 14-day warning to aldermen and their staffs before a probe begins;

• A mandate that all complaints be signed and notarized, which had a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers;

• No investigations of aldermanic fundraising.

Without those impediments, a Legislative IG has the potential to watch the Council as effectively as Ferguson watches city departments.

We’ll find out in the next few weeks if the merger ordinance extending Ferguson’s jurisdiction has the votes to pass.

If not there’s Plan B, and the mayor’s already urging aldermen to implement that quickly by finding a new Legislative IG by the end of the year.

Either way the Council would have a watchdog, not a lapdog.

The teeth might not be as sharp or the bark as loud as we’d prefer.

But it’s a good start toward eliminating a cesspool of corruption that’s ripped off and embarrassed Chicago taxpayers for generations.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga