In a big step forward in the fight for government reform and transparency, the City Council yesterday voted to give City Inspector General Joe Ferguson the power to investigate alleged ethical breaches and violations of the law by aldermen and their staffs. It’s a battle I’ve been waging for nearly eight years.
The City Council for years exempted itself from the Inspector General’s purview. I introduced an ordinance back in 2009 to expand the Inspector General’s authority to include aldermen. Though my proposal received wide support from good government groups and newspaper editorial boards, it ran into stiff resistance from my colleagues.
Responding to public pressure, the City Council in 2011 created the office of Legislative Inspector General, whose sole responsibility was to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct among City Council members and their staffs. I opposed this measure, arguing that the City Council was creating a “toothless tiger” by failing to arm the Legislative Inspector General with the staff and budget he needed to do his job effectively.
My prediction turned out to be correct. The Legislative Inspector General, Faisal Khan, left the office last year after four years on the job with little to show for his efforts. To date, no criminal charges have been filed in any case that originated in the Legislative Inspector General’s office and the City’s Board of Ethics sustained only one minor ethics charge brought by his office against one of my colleagues.
With passage of the measure yesterday, the City Council has now submitted itself to the oversight of Inspector General Ferguson, a professional investigator with a professional staff and a sufficient budget. The ordinance does the following:
- Eliminates the ineffective office of Legislative Inspector General;
- Removes virtually all of the procedural obstacles to investigating aldermen and their staffs;
- For the first time in history, gives the Inspector General jurisdiction over lobbyists and contractors; and
- Fully funds the office of Inspector General’s office
The original proposal, which I co-sponsored with my colleagues Aldermen Michele Smith and Ameya Pawar, also gave the Inspector General the power to conduct audits of the City Council and its committees. Unfortunately, the audit proposal ran into strong resistance from many of my colleagues, which threatened to scuttle the entire ordinance.
Rather than face defeat of the ordinance and leave the City Council without any oversight whatsoever, I worked with my colleagues Aldermen Patrick O’Connor and Will Burns to fashion a compromise substitute ordinance that removed the audit function but continued to give the Inspector General the authority to investigate any and all allegations of ethical misconduct and violations of the law.
Rarely in the legislative process do you get everything you want and clearly more work remains to be done. Nevertheless, the ordinance the City Council passed yesterday represents a very significant victory for the advocates of good and honest government by ensuring that no one in City government is above the law.