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EDITORIAL: Ed Burke scandal presents Chicago with a grand opportunity for reform

Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios granted Ald. Edward M. Burke (above) property tax breaks on his home and ward offices that saved him nearly 6 percent last year despite no evidence the cuts were warranted.

Ald. Edward M. Burke | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Out of scandal, when we’re lucky, comes reform, and maybe Chicago’s in for a little of that now.

On Friday, after Ald. Edward Burke resigned his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Ald. Patrick J. O’Connor, as acting chairman of the committee, will lead an effort to reform how the city runs its secretive $100 million-a-year workers compensation program.

Most basically — and this is an excellent development — the mayor wants to strip the program from the Council’s Finance Committee, where Burke apparently ran it as a personal political favor bank, and move it to the city’s finance department, where it belongs.

We enthusiastically support this reform, for which we made a case just two weeks ago, with one big caveat: The city inspector general should be granted full oversight over the management of the program. For that matter, the inspector general should be granted true oversight over all agencies under the mayor’s control, along with the ability to defend its subpoenas in court.

As things work now, the IG must rely on the mayor and city law department to defend its subpoenas.

EDITORIAL

No other major city has its workers’ comp program — an administrative function — parked in the legislative branch of government and essentially under the control of one person. Reformers have been clamoring for this fix for years, but every proposal has died a quiet death in the City Council.

Outside of Burke’s Finance Committee, nobody really knows what this exceptionally opaque program is really up to, although a string of journalistic exposes have provided clues. Unqualified “experts,” such as a dog groomer, have padded the payroll, and city employees with political clout have been the most likely to receive compensation for an injury suffered on the job.

Now, finally, this rock might be turned over and we can all see what crawls out.

While the Council is dabbling in reform, like mud wrestlers taking a foot bath, it also should grant the inspector general authority to conduct financial audits and oversee the practices of the Council. This could quickly lead to cleaner government, more efficient city services and marginally happier taxpayers.

At present, the inspector general’s purview over the City Council is limited to investigating misconduct.

And one last point: Anybody Burke hired to work for the Finance Committee is now suspect. That’s just the sad fact. A review of all employees involved in the workers’ compensation program is essential. Anybody found to have fudged the rules or looked the other way should go.

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