Hearing Set on Stalled Effort to Tighten Chicago’s Ethics Rules

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

An effort designed to overhaul Chicago’s ethics rules and finally put an end to the deluge of corruption at City Hall is set to get a hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday — nearly three months after it was introduced and ran into a brick wall of opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

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The Ethics and Government Oversight Committee is set to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday to consider a revised version of the proposal authored by Ald. Michele Smith, the panel’s chair, and backed by the Chicago Board of Ethics.

However, a spokesperson for Smith declined in a statement to WTTW News to detail the changes to the proposal until the Law Department reviews the revised measure. 

The original proposal remains in legislative limbo after Lightfoot directed her allies on the Chicago City Council to use a parliamentary procedure during the May 25 City Council meeting to prevent Smith from holding a hearing on the matter.

Lightfoot and Smith began negotiations over the proposal after Chicago Board of Ethics Chair William Conlon said June 13 the package of reforms should be “swiftly” passed by the City Council and signed into law. Smith could have asked her City Council colleagues in June to send the original proposal to her committee for a hearing, but took no action after she said the mayor vowed to back the revised proposal.

However, Lightfoot declined to tell WTTW News which provisions of the measure she wanted to see amended, and she stopped far short of promising to back the passage of a revised proposal championed by her hand-picked choice to lead the Ethics Committee.

To resurrect her proposal, Smith plans to introduce the revised measure directly to her committee, which could vote to send the proposal to the full City Council meeting on July 20 for a final vote. The approval of the mayor’s office is typically needed to bypass the normal legislative process, as is being proposed in this case.

That sets up the Ethics Committee to hold a hearing, and potentially a key vote, on a significant overhaul of the city’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance without giving members of the public or the news media a chance to review its provisions in advance of official action by members of the City Council.

During the 2019 campaign, Lightfoot campaigned on a platform that promised to root out City Hall corruption by increasing transparency.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), who is running against Lightfoot for mayor, blocked the original proposal from advancing in April because he said he had not had enough time to review it before voting to allow it to advance to a hearing and potential vote. Since then, Sawyer has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure, along with Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), one of the mayor’s closest allies.

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.

The original proposal would hike the maximum fine for violating the city’s ethics ordinance from $5,000 to $20,000 as part of an effort to grapple with Chicago’s seemingly intractable legacy of graft and mismanagement.

The original measure would also 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 original 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.

Read the original proposal.

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

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