Chicago mayor proposes greater oversight of city council

Mayor Richard Daley introduced an ordinance this week that would allow Chicago's inspector general to investigate aldermen. The move came after an alderman last week pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.

By , Staff writer

Will the Chicago City Council – for years the subject of headlines as a patronage machine – open itself up to investigative scrutiny?

That’s the question behind a new ordinance introduced this week that would give the city's inspector general free rein to investigate aldermen. The full council is expected to vote on the matter in March.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is behind the effort, which he says was inspired by last week’s federal indictment of Alderman Isaac Carothers, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a developer. In doing so, he became the 29th city alderman convicted of crimes since 1972. Mayor Daley said the incident “broke the camel’s back. I think after the Carothers issue, people are losing confidence in government,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

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That Daley wants the inspector general’s office, which he created in 1989, to expand its jurisdiction to include city aldermen is also part of an effort to end federal oversight of the city’s hiring practices. In 2005, a federal judge appointed a monitor to oversee all city hires after federal authorities accused the Daley administration of rewarding political allies with jobs and overtime. The city is still in need of a hiring plan that would create a process of hiring due to merit, not political connections.

“If the city ever wants [federal oversight] to stop, which it does, the house has to be in order,” says Dan Sprehe, special assistant at the city inspector general's office. “And in this case, a federal judge and the citizens at large must feel that, ‘OK, they are capable of keeping their house in order.’ ”

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the city has a “longstanding serious problem with political influence and hiring” and that the ordinance is a way the city is showing federal authorities it is doing its best to demonstrate a culture change at city hall.

“The city is certainly desperate to get rid of court oversight. They want to take control of hiring in house and they’re trying to set up something that will look to the judge that it’s enough. Now whether it’s really enough or window dressing is all in the details,” he says.

The passage of the ordinance is uncertain. But when the office was created 20 years ago, the council voted to remove themselves from the office’s jurisdiction, saying they wanted to avoid the possibility of the executive branch having the power to conduct political witch hunts.

“That's the same thing J. Edgar Hoover did to Congress,” Bernard Stone, who has served as alderman since 1973, told the Chicago Tribune.

The inspector general office would take over investigations of political hiring from the Office of Compliance, which has been under federal scrutiny almost since its inception. Daley said Monday that he should not have created the compliance office in 2007 and that all hiring matters should be in the hands of the inspector general.

The compliance office deals with hiring practices, Mr. Sprehe says, making it more difficult for the inspector general’s office to be in the loop regarding potential corruption.

“If someone in the other department doesn’t recognize a report or an action as potential misconduct, the inspector general’s office doesn’t have chance to investigate it,” he says.

To end institutional hiring corruption in Chicago, it will take “someone with enough gravitas to say, ‘No,’ " says Mr. Morrison. "And I don’t know if the city is up for that sort of purpose.”

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