The Chicago City Council’s Ethics and Government Operations Committee unanimously endorsed a proposal on Thursday to limit Chicago’s inspector general to two four-year terms, a change that will protect the watchdog’s independence, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said.
Limiting the city’s watchdog to two terms would bring “stability, order, independence” to the office, which oversees all city departments and contractors as well as the mayor’s office, City Council and its committees, Witzburg said.
An inspector general in office for more than eight years runs the risk of compromising the agency’s integrity by becoming either too friendly with, or too antagonistic toward, the people and the agencies they oversee, said Witzburg, who told the committee she would be bound by the term limit.
The proposal, authored by Ethics Committee Chair Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward), is set for a final vote by the full City Council on Wednesday, July 19. The committee’s meeting on Thursday was just the panel’s third meeting since January, and the first under Martin’s leadership.
Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to name a new Ethics Committee chair after the resignation of former Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward) in August, even though the City Council’s rules called for Martin, the committee’s vice chair, to replace Smith. That left the panel, which has a budget of more than $197,000 in 2023, leaderless for nine months.
Martin’s proposal has the support of the Better Government Association, a group that advocates for government accountability.
The changes will bring “urgency and accountability” to the process of selecting a new inspector general, who must be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, according to a statement from the group.
The proposal also changes the way inspector generals are appointed or replaced by setting deadlines for nomination and requires officials to disclose if they hire a firm to conduct a search for a new watchdog. In addition, the ordinance would tap the office’s general counsel to serve as an interim inspector general during a vacancy.
The measure would also allow the deputy inspector general for public safety to stay in office even if the top spot is vacant.
The measure was prompted by the turmoil that engulfed the office after Lightfoot declined to reappoint former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who left office in October 2021, after 12 years in office.
First appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009, Ferguson was reappointed twice by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and saw his office’s power expand significantly after the 2014 police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald prompted efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department.
After Lightfoot took office in 2019, she and Ferguson clashed over a number of issues, including the Chicago Police Department’s handling of the protests and unrest triggered by the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Ferguson released a blistering report that found department leaders and Lightfoot botched nearly every aspect of their response.
After Ferguson left office — condemning her and her administration as incompetent — Lightfoot told reporters the city’s next inspector general should be someone who “understands the importance of staying in their lane.”
Even though Ferguson urged the City Council to begin searching for his replacement in July 2021, that search did not begin until September 2021. Lightfoot appointed the deputy inspector general for investigations to lead the office on an interim basis, and Witzburg, then the deputy inspector general for public safety, resigned to seek the top job.
That left Chicago without a City Council-confirmed watchdog for six months, outraging advocates for good government.
Lightfoot eventually appointed Witzburg to replace her former boss, and she was confirmed unanimously by the City Council.