An effort to overhaul Chicago’s ethics rules designed to finally put an end to the deluge of corruption at City Hall will remain stalled for at least another month, even as Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she has begun negotiating with Ald. Michele Smith.
However, Lightfoot declined to endorse Smith’s proposal, first introduced in April, or detail how the proposal should be changed in response to questions from WTTW News.
“We did sit down, we did talk, we talked about some amendments,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “When that work is done, we’ll let you know.”
Lightfoot and Smith met after Chicago Board of Ethics Chair William Conlon said June 13 the package of reforms — which has been stalled since April without Lightfoot’s backing — should be “swiftly” passed by the City Council and signed into law.
However, since the proposal will remain in legislative lingo for another month, a vote could not come before July — the City Council’s final scheduled meeting before its annual August break.
Smith told WTTW News on Tuesday a revised proposal was scheduled to be released within a week.
“The mayor and I had a detailed conversation and she assured me that she would support, in July, a substitute ordinance,” Smith said in a statement.
Lightfoot’s representatives declined to confirm that commitment.
The proposal from Smith, the chair of the City Council’s Ethics and Government Oversight Committee, and supported by the Chicago Board of Ethics, would hike the maximum fine for violating the city’s ethics ordinance from $5,000 to $20,000. Smith and Conlon said the measure was necessary to grapple with Chicago’s seemingly intractable legacy of graft and mismanagement.
Lightfoot instructed her allies on the City Council to use a parliamentary maneuver during the May 25 City Council meeting to prevent Smith from holding a hearing on the proposal this month. In April, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), who is running against Lightfoot for mayor, blocked it from advancing. Since then, Sawyer has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure.
Smith, who was tapped by Lightfoot more than two years ago to lead the newly created committee charged with fulfilling Lightfoot’s central campaign promise of ending corruption at City Hall, has said she was flummoxed by the mayor’s actions and statements.
Smith typically votes with the mayor on high-profile issues, including her annual budget proposals as well as her recent push to expand and extend the city’s teen curfew. But the North Side alderperson was one of seven members of the City Council to vote against Lightfoot’s pick of Bally’s to build a casino along the Chicago River in River West.
The issue of ethics reform has fallen nearly completely off the mayor’s agenda amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and a public safety crisis that sent violent crime to the highest levels in nearly 25 years.
It is also unclear why Lightfoot would not support Smith’s proposal in an election year and use it as an opportunity to burnish her credentials as a reformer.
In addition to hiking the fines for ethics violations, the measure would expand the number of companies doing business with the city that would be limited to contributing $1,600 to any one candidate per year to include subcontractors earning more than $10,000 within 12 months, as well as those doing business with the city’s sister agencies such as Chicago Public Schools.
In addition, the measure would expand the city’s rules against nepotism to prevent city officials or employees from taking any action that benefits their domestic partner or relatives and prohibit firms from hiring relatives of city officials to skirt the rules, according to the proposal.
The proposal also takes aim at the way the City Council operates, and would ban former alderpeople who work as lobbyists from the floor of the Council Chambers. That provision appears directed at former Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) who works as a lobbyist and has been a frequent presence at meetings since his defeat in 2019.
The proposal would also require aldermen to physically leave the council committee room during discussions and votes on issues where they have an interest and have recused themselves. A similar change proposed by the Ethics Board in 2019 was defeated.