The Chicago City Council is expected to confirm Inspector General Joe Ferguson to a second four-year term Wednesday. This presents Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a real opportunity to prove his commitment to government reform and accountability.
All he has to do is quit stalling and pick up the phone.
The Chicago Inspector General’s office was created under then-Mayor Daley in 1989 and is charged with “root[ing] out corruption, waste, and mismanagement, while promoting effectiveness and efficiency in City government.” The office is intended to serve as a watchdog for accountability and transparency for city taxpayers by conducting investigations and audits into corruption, mismanagement, waste and fraud in city government.
Back in May, however, nine members of the Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, including Ald. John Arena (45), Ald. Bob Fioretti (2), Ald. Scott Waugespack (32), Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6) and others, introduced a series of six ordinances they say are designed to invest the IG’s office with some real power. The alderman say that while the IG’s office is a much needed tool to hold politicians accountable, the way it was originally set up waters down much of its ability to operate properly.
Specifically, they point to the fact that the IG’s office doesn't control its own budget, has no real subpoena power, doesn't control its own hiring and firing and can’t keep communications with city employees confidential. In short, they say the inspector general is beholden to the very people it’s supposed to investigate—the city’s political structure—for its existence and operation.
Unfortunately, despite repeated public statements suggesting Mayor Emanuel is committed to ensuring transparency in city government and letting the IG’s office do it’s job, his history and actions prove otherwise. In 2010, he blocked the IG’s efforts to get records about a $100,000-a-year no-bid contract given to a one-time employee of retiring Mayor Richard Daley.
When the Illinois Supreme Court said there was a problem with the way the IG law was written that denied the IG subpoena authority, the mayor refused to do anything about it. He then said the current IG, Joe Ferguson, was going to have to reapply for his job, and made it look like he wasn’t going to be allowed to keep it.
Then everything changed, once Emanuel’s ex-Comptroller Amer Ahmad was indicted in an alleged kickback and money laundering scheme in August that forced the mayor to use the inspector general as political cover. Suddenly, Joe Ferguson was back in, and his confirmation sailed through a Council committee this week.
There’s only one problem with this story of victory for good government. Remember those six ordinances introduced back in April? Well, you’re not supposed to. They’ve been buried in the Council Rules Committee, chaired by Ald. Michelle Harris (8), ever since they were introduced.
Known as the place where “good legislation goes to die,” the Rules Committee has long been where unwelcome ordinances are tabled until the mayor chooses to release them or they are completely forgotten about.
It’s an open secret that if Mayor Emanuel wanted the IG legislation—or any of the dozens of other unwelcome suggestions from the City Council on how the city should be run—moved from Rules to another committee and then the full council for a vote, it would be.
During his campaign for Mayor, Emanuel explicitly said he wanted to “expand the IG’s oversight authority, protect the IG budget from political pressure and ensure City Hall compliance with the IG.” In fact, he even made it part of his campaign platform.
Now’s his chance to fulfill his promise. All he has to do is pick up the phone and call Ald. Harris.
In case you’ve lost the number, Mr. Mayor, it’s right here on the city’s website.