City Council Committee Chairs Used Their Budgets to Boost Spending in Their Wards: Watchdog

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Several of the most powerful members of the Chicago City Council used employees of the City Council committees they led to perform work in their wards, a potential violation of state law, according to an audit released Wednesday.

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Inspector General Joseph Ferguson — set to leave office on Friday — said allowing committee staff to perform constituent services work could violate a state law that requires governmental agencies spend taxpayer funds in accordance with policies approved by elected officials.

Some of the leaders of Chicago’s City Council “follow anachronistic practices and maintain a culture reminiscent of the City’s colorful but less-than-noble past,” Ferguson said.

The audit marks the first time Ferguson has examined the operations of the City Council and actions taken by alderpeople directly. In 2019, the City Council expanded the authority of the inspector general to audit City Council committees, threatening the financial perks long enjoyed by the most powerful members of the Chicago City Council.

In response to the audit, City Council committee chairs said they disagreed with the watchdog that using committee staff to perform ward work violated state law, and had obtained a legal opinion backing up their assertion. 

“All the spending here is within one purpose — personnel — and is therefore permissible,” according to the chairs’ response to Ferguson.

The reaction of the committee chairs “sends a less than encouraging message to the taxpaying public we all serve,” Ferguson said.

The flexible budgets of City Council committees have long been a coveted perk for some of Chicago’s most powerful politicians, allowing them to hire political supporters without running afoul of rules that normally prohibit plum jobs from being awarded to friends and, in some cases, family members. 

In addition, Ferguson’s audit found that several City Council committee chairs failed to track their employees’ attendance between June 2015 and March 2020, another potential violation of state law. All but one of the five committees’ employee attendance records were kept on paper, according to the audit.

Ferguson examined attendance records from the Budget Committee, the Economic Development Committee, the Finance Committee, the Workforce Development Committee and the Zoning Committee.

Only the Finance Committee tracked employee attendance electronically, because it handled the city’s workers’ compensation system until 2019. 

Seven out of 13 committee chairs, who were not identified in the audit in keeping with the rules governing the inspector general’s office, “directed or allowed committee employees to work on non-committee matters, including tasks related to the chair’s ward,” according to the audit. “This practice constitutes noncompliance with the state and municipal requirements that governmental entities expend appropriated funds only for their designated purposes.”

The practice also may “create inequities between wards by effectively giving some aldermen disproportionally more resources for their non-committee work,” according to the audit.

Members of the City Council have an annual budget of $190,972 to pay their staff, as well as a budget of $122,000 for expenses.

Committee chairs get an additional $190,000 to hire staff for their committees, according to the audit.

The audit also identified $35,985 in spending from committees’ budgets for non-committee purposes. New controls put in place in July 2019 will stop such “impermissible payments” in the future, according to the audit.

Those payments included a lease for a car, utilities for a ward office and a subscription to Travel & Leisure magazine, according to the audit.

The audit recommends that committee chairs be required to track their employees’ attendance with the city’s electronic timekeeping system. However, that recommendation was rejected by representatives of the City Council, who said they would “develop a uniform system of paper timekeeping” but would not use the city’s electronic system, even though it is used by most other city departments.

In addition, “City Council representatives declined to ensure that committee chairs stop directing or allowing staff to work on non-committee business or to transition away from the practice,” according to the audit.

City Council representatives also told the inspector general they would not comply with his recommendation to conduct a “staffing analysis to determine the staffing needs of each committee.”

The city’s newest committee chair is Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), who replaced Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) after WTTW News reported that the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity under Austin’s leadership spent more than nearly all other committees but only met three times in 2020 and advanced no substantive legislation.

In addition, the Education Committee — led by Ald. Michael Scott (24th Ward) — spent $159,425 in 2020, according to the audit. 

The committee met just three times in 2020, including two meetings to approve three nominations from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to the board of trustees overseeing the City Colleges of Chicago. 

The only other meeting of the Education Committee in 2020 was a joint session with the Public Safety Committee to discuss the issue of officers assigned to patrol Chicago Public Schools, at which no vote was taken.

The committee has not held a single meeting or advanced any legislation even as Chicago Public Schools were closed to in-person learning for more than a year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the City Council’s Special Legislative Committee on the Census, led by Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), spent $101,591 on personnel expenses, according to the audit — but did not hold a single meeting in 2020.

Reboyras now leads the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which had a budget of $111,500 to spend during 2021, but has met just twice this year.

That committee advanced one substantive measure designed to expand rights for immigrants in Chicago in January.

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

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