THE BLOG

Toothless Watchdog Won't Scare Anyone

11/14/2011 02:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pulling on the leash of City Hall's legally designated watchdog, and that could undermine the new mayor's pledge to make his administration more open, honest and accountable.

Joseph Ferguson, the city's Inspector General, is at odds with the mayor and his law department over how far the IG's investigative powers extend into the workings of city government.

This is not a new issue: the latest battle for power between the IG and City Hall began under the Daley administration when Ferguson started looking into a no-bid contract to a former city worker. Rather than handing over the documents Ferguson requested, Daley stonewalled, sparking a legal battle that is now headed for the Illinois Supreme Court.

The basic issue is whether the IG is truly independent and free to investigate all of city government, including activities of the mayor's office and the city law department, or just another employee of the mayor, who appoints him, which makes him a subordinate who's only entitled to the documents and information the boss is willing to provide.

To be a true watchdog -- one capable of uncovering and investigating public corruption in Chicago -- it has to be the former. The IG must be able to operate independent of and unencumbered by the mayor's office or the city law department. In the Better Government Association's view, that means Emanuel and the law department run by corporation counsel Steve Patton should recognize that the IG, under the Chicago Municipal Code, has the investigative authority to request and subpoena information from all of the employees in its jurisdiction, including the mayor and everyone else.

It's as simple as that.

But in spite of a campaign promise to expand the scope, the power and the budget of the IG, Emanuel's administration is continuing Daley's practice of undermining and challenging the IG's independence and authority.

Corporation Counsel Patton, the mayor's top lawyer, argues the IG does not have subpoena power over his office and that the IG reports directly to the Office of the Mayor -- a statement that, if true, would completely compromise the IG's ability to independently investigate allegations of any City Hall corruption.

A BGA analysis of the municipal code finds that it clearly gives the IG the power to investigate all elected and appointed officers of city government, as well as employees, programs, and contractors. In the scope of an investigation, the code also gives the IG the authority to subpoena any of those entities.

And contrary to Patton's argument that the mayor oversees the IG, the code specifically says the Inspector General is ultimately responsible for the operation and management of his office -- not the mayor.

The public interest in rooting out corruption in Chicago, along with the statutory authority granted to the IG's office, far outweighs any argument the city's legal minds have conjured up to withhold the records Ferguson has requested.

The mayor should follow through on his promise to make Chicago government more transparent by changing his mind and his policy -- Emanuel needs to give the IG the independence and power he needs to carry out the duties required of him by law.

A watchdog is only effective when it is truly independent, and when it has the powers and the resources to fully execute its mission. In addition to providing inadequate funding, eliminating a watchdog's independence and denying him the legal authority to perform his mandated duties are the easiest ways to undercut the office.

In the past, Emanuel and Ferguson have had their disagreements and that's likely to continue.

But Mayor Emanuel must realize that a toothless, timid watchdog is useless to the people of Chicago. A paper tiger is nothing more than a pussycat. Chicago needs a tiger that can bear its teeth, stretch its claws and even, when necessary, take a bite out of a bad guy.

Emily Miller is an attorney and the BGA's Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org or on Twitter @EJMill.