City Council today proved that it is ready for reform – just not very much reform. It was a tense debate over which reform to support: one that would give Inspector General Joe Ferguson broad, sweeping powers to investigate and audit aldermen, or a more hands-off approach favored by powerful Alderman Ed Burke (14th Ward).
The outcome was in doubt until the very end.
By the narrowest of margins, City Council voted 25 to 23 in favor of the revised ethics ordinance, the one championed by Burke. Some aldermen made a football analogy, comparing the revision to driving down the length of the football field and kicking a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown.
The ordinance will give Ferguson the power to investigate misconduct allegations against aldermen, but it stops there. It does not give Ferguson that ability to audit committees and programs that aldermen run. We’re told by several aldermen that Burke lobbied furiously behind the scenes, offering favors to aldermen who would vote for this revised ordinance.
Burke chairs the City Council Finance Committee, which runs the $100 million city workers’ compensation program, something he has fought to keep away from Ferguson’s oversight in the past.
In the end, he was able to persuade enough aldermen that this ordinance that will still shield that program from oversight is reform enough.
“The people who want the un-amended ordinance are writing a blank check,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward), who spearheaded the effort to revise the ordinance in a working group that convened after last month’s City Council meeting. Burns is resigning his post in March to take a job with Airbnb.
“If we vote down this ordinance, what if we bring up the other ordinance and that gets voted down? Then we’re back at square one with no oversight by anybody,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward). “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to pick sides in the fight, repeatedly insisting that whatever they chose, aldermen would not revert back to the days of nobody watching over them.
“It’s not over. It’s part of an evolution that constantly strives toward making City Council more open, accountable, knowledgeable on how it spends public money.”
Other aldermen favored the original version of the ordinance, the one that would have gone all the way and allowed Ferguson to audit aldermanic programs like workers’ compensation. They say some unseemly behind-the-scenes activity prevented that from happening.
“I think that scare tactics were used to frighten aldermen,” said Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward). “Unfortunately, that affected some of our colleagues. So we’ll just keep fighting.”
“I just think we had an opportunity to not water this down, to show constituents we were going to have full transparency and oversight in everything this council does, and we came up short,” said Ald. John Arena (45th Ward).
And Ferguson – despite winning these new powers today had this response:
“Instead of embracing oversight for itself consonant with that for the rest of city government and operations, it retreated. In short, aldermen squandered what could and should have been a singularly successful moment in the city’s civic history.”
There were some aldermen who had supported the tougher ordinance that flipped – including Alds. Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward), George Cardenas (12th Ward) and Joe Moore (49th Ward). (A full list of how each alderman voted is below.)
Arena did not let the partial loss stop the discussion on whether or not Burke’s workers; compensation program should receive greater oversight. He introduced a resolution that would call for debate on whether to take it out of Burke’s hands and transfer it to the executive branch.
“The concern for me is, if we now have a closet that can’t be looked into, when we have $63 million being paid out in workman’s comp claims, that’s a concern,” Arena said. “The finance committee’s function is to handle the business of the council, not to handle a program that deals with legal issues and medical issues. It’s just not the place for it to happen.”
In other council news, Burke introduced an ordinance that would repeal taxes on tampons and other feminine hygiene products. And in a lighter moment, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward), after giving a speech to commemorate Black History Month, led her fellow alderman in a rendition of “Kumbaya.”
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz
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