“Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”
That smug pronouncement by legendary North Side alderman and saloon keeper Paddy Bauler in 1955, after Richard J. Daley’s first mayoral victory, handed pundits a perfect quote for decades of stories about City Hall corruption.
It was an accurate depiction of Chicago’s cocky, self-serving machine politics, and it’s been invoked countless times since then as hundreds of local officials, including more than 30 aldermen, ended up in prison for selling favors or peddling influence.
The “culture of corruption” isn’t as blatant these days, and it looked like Bauler’s old bailiwick, the City Council, might finally be “ready for reform” in 2010, when aldermen succumbed to public pressure and agreed to establish an inspector general’s office to “watch” them and their aides.
But “watch” turns out to be a misnomer because the Council majority passed a restrictive ordinance that gave the Legislative IG too little authority, too few investigators and too many impediments to be effective.
Even so, it took more than a year of foot-dragging to fill the position with a New York attorney, Faisal Khan, who spent his four-year term fighting publicly with aldermen over investigative tactics, and with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Council leaders over his puny budget and paralyzing constraints.
Khan didn’t accomplish much, but at least he turned his files over to the FBI on the way out, so we’ll see where that goes.
Meanwhile, when it became apparent more than a year ago that Khan wouldn’t be re-appointed, the Council’s increasingly influential progressive bloc, led by 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith, began lobbying for a fully empowered Legislative IG modeled after executive branch watchdog Joe Ferguson.
But “old guard’ aldermen pushed back, and that sparked a long skirmish that’s headed for a showdown this week.
Smith believes that after months of drafting and redrafting proposals, and jawboning to get committee hearings, her bloc finally has the votes to pass a so-called “merger ordinance” that would extend Ferguson’s IG authority and jurisdiction to the legislative branch — City Council.
The Better Government Association heartily endorses that approach — it’s efficient and presages real reform — so it’s not surprising the same powerful aldermen who hogtied Faisal Khan, led by Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin, are fighting it.
They’d rather appoint a new legislative IG with many of the constraints that neutered Khan — another toothless lapdog instead of an aggressive watchdog.
The opposition has a candidate in mind, and they’re readying a procedural maneuver that could prevent a vote on the merger ordinance.
We can reluctantly support a new legislative IG, instead of Ferguson, but only if he or she has the same power Ferguson wields over the rest of city government.
City Council oversight is still fundamentally broken, a few powerful aldermen are perfectly content to leave it that way, and this prolonged standoff only amplifies their obvious disrespect for the city residents they’ve sworn to serve, a stance that’s more disturbing than ever during these volatile times in Chicago.
So we’re hoping Ald. Smith can hold her majority together long enough to beat back procedural gimmicks and pass an ordinance that puts aldermen and their staffs under the same bright light that illuminates the rest of city government.
That would be a major step toward finally relegating Paddy Bauler’s infamous aphorism to its rightful place — in the history books.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @andyshawbga