4 Months After Chicago Watchdog’s Departure, Closed-Door Search Continues with No Signs of Progress

Chicago has been without a City Council-confirmed watchdog for more than four months, as the search for former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s replacement continues behind closed doors without any signs of progress.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to reappoint Ferguson to serve a fourth term in office after the two repeatedly clashed over a number of issues, including efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department and the way the mayor and police leaders handled the protests and unrest triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

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While Chicago has been without a permanent inspector general, former 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson became the 37th alderperson to be convicted of a crime since 1969. Alds. Ed Burke (14th Ward) and Carrie Austin (34th Ward) are awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to bribery and corruption charges.

Ferguson urged Lightfoot and members of the City Council to start the process of picking his replacement in a July 1 letter that officials ignored until September, ensuring that Chicago would be without a permanent watchdog even as corruption probes swirled and the push for police reform moves forward in fits and starts.

Lightfoot tapped William Marback, who served as the deputy inspector general for investigations, to serve as the city’s watchdog on an interim basis.

Chicago’s inspector general has the power to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and malfeasance by city employees, contractors and vendors. In 2019, the City Council expanded the authority of the watchdog to audit City Council committees, threatening the financial perks long enjoyed by the most powerful members of the Chicago City Council.

City ordinance calls for a five-member search committee to review applications to be Chicago’s inspector general and forward its recommendations to Lightfoot. Once Lightfoot makes her pick, they must be confirmed by the Chicago City Council.

The committee — made up of Walter Katz, Cara Hendrickson, Margaret “Peggy” Daley, Rita Fry and Jose Tirado — has not solicited input from Chicagoans nor has it made any public statements.

Katz — who served as deputy chief of staff for public safety under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and Hendrickson — who helped craft the consent decree that requires the Chicago Police Department to implement a series of reforms in her role as the head of the Public Interest Division in the Illinois attorney general’s office — were picked by Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward), the chair of the City Council’s Ethics Committee and confirmed by the City Council.

Lightfoot picked Daley, a former member of the Cook County Board of Ethics, Fry, who served on the Chicago Police Board and as the Cook County public defender and Jose Tirado, who now works in the cannabis industry and former Chicago Police Department official.

Smith told WTTW News that she is not concerned that it is taking so long to replace Ferguson.

“I believe everyone is doing their jobs,” Smith said. “I’m not yet concerned.”

The process of picking Chicago’s third inspector general since 2005 is designed to be an independent process free of political pressure from members of the City Council, Smith said.

However, Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) told WTTW News he is concerned, especially after Lightfoot told reporters the city’s next inspector general should be someone who “understands the importance of staying in their lane.”

“Those are some really problematic comments,” Sigcho Lopez said. “We have to have an independent inspector general.”

After leaving office, Ferguson blasted Lightfoot and her administration as incompetent. 

The selection committee is “working diligently to identify top candidates both locally and nationally for the inspector general role,” said Cesar Rodriguez, Lightfoot’s spokesperson.

Rodriguez declined to respond to questions from WTTW News about whether the mayor has interviewed any finalists or rejected any finalists recommended by the search committee.

Chicago has also been without a deputy public safety inspector general since Nov. 1, when Deborah Witzburg resigned, telling Lightfoot she wanted the top job.

The role of the deputy inspector general for public safety was created as part of a package of reforms crafted by the Chicago City Council and Emanuel in the wake of the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. It was designed to ensure that officers guilty of misconduct were held accountable and that the Chicago Police Department did not violate the civil rights of Chicagoans.

Those reforms included the creation of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which has been without a permanent head since May, when Sydney Roberts resigned.

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

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