City Council Committee Led by Indicted Ald. Austin Spends More, Does Less than Nearly All Others

The Chicago City Council committee led by indicted Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) spent $191,500 in 2020, while meeting just three times without advancing a single piece of substantive legislation or pressing officials on how the city can do a better job ensuring lucrative contracts can benefit firms owned by women or Black, Latino or Asian Chicagoans. 

More than 45 days after Austin was indicted on charges of bribery and lying to federal officials, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who picked Austin to lead the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity, has yet to call for Austin to relinquish her position. 

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Austin pleaded not guilty to the charges. The second-longest serving member of the Chicago City Council, Austin has not spoken to the news media since being indicted July 1 and did not return an email from WTTW News seeking a response to questions about the money spent by the committee she leads. 

A spokesperson for Lightfoot did not respond to repeated questions from WTTW News about whether the funds spent by the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity were a good use of taxpayer dollars. In addition, Lightfoot did not answer questions about whether she has spoken to Austin about her future on the City Council after promising to do so last month. 

The Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity spent more than eight other City Council committees in 2020, including the Public Safety Committee — which approved a plan to put a board of Chicago residents in charge of the Chicago Police Department — and the Health Committee, which oversaw the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city’s annual financial report

Because of the pandemic, City Council committees have been meeting virtually since April 2020. 

The two committees that met the most often in 2020 were the City Council’s Finance Committee and the Budget and Government Operations Committee, according to records kept by the Chicago City Clerk’s office. 

Coincidentally, Lightfoot ousted Austin as chair of the Budget Committee after taking office in May 2019 before creating the Contracting Oversight and Equity Committee and tapping Austin to lead it. 

Even though the Contracting Oversight and Equity Committee spent every dollar set aside for its operations, 17 of the City Council’s 19 committees ended the 2020 fiscal year under budget, including the Finance and Budget committees. 

Led by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), the Finance Committee ended the year 41% under budget, while the Budget Committee spent just 77% of its annual budget. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said much of those savings were realized because virtual meetings did not require the committee to hire a court reporter to transcribe the proceedings. 

The only committee to exceed its annual budget was the Aviation Committee. Chair Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th Ward) told WTTW News a “clerical error” was to blame for the committee exceeding its $180,000 budget by $7,045. 

Under Austin’s leadership, the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity advanced appointments to the city’s Affirmative Action Advisory Board, passed a nonbinding resolution urging city officials to help businesses owned by LGBT Chicagoans get city contracts and reestablished a pilot program designed to set aside a portion of city contracts for businesses owned by veterans in 2020. 

None of those items were controversial. 

In addition, the Contracting Oversight and Equity Committee extended the city’s program that sets aside 26% of city contracts for firms owned by Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans and another 6% for firms owned women until September to give city officials additional time to complete a disparity study necessary to reauthorize the program. 

But that was not controversial, and the vote took place without any debate. 

In June, Lightfoot proposed a six-year extension of the program that keeps the portion of city contracts set aside for firms owned by Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans the same but changes some of the requirements for firms to qualify for the program. 

Less than a week after Lightfoot introduced that measure, which will likely face a legal challenge, Austin was indicted on four charges that she took bribes in the form of home improvements including new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops from a developer and lied to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. 

Even though the Chicago City Council must act before the end of September, the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity has yet to schedule a meeting to consider Lightfoot’s proposal. 

In fact, even though the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity’s budget for 2021 is the same as it was in 2020 — $191,500 — it has yet to meet in the first eight months of the year. 

Lightfoot also did not respond to questions about whether it was appropriate for an alderperson who is under indictment for taking a bribe from a company doing business with the city to oversee the permanent extension of the program designed to sure that firms owned by Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans get their fair share of the city’s lucrative contracts.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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