Watchdog or Puppy Dog? A Report From the Chicago City Council

06/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to the inaugural post of my City Council Report on Huffington Post! Several years ago, I began e-mailing to my 49th Ward constituents regular summaries of the Chicago City Council meetings. The reports have been well-received, and I've been encouraged to post them to a wider audience, including residents of my ward who are not on my e-mail list and those who live outside the 49th ward boundaries. I hope you find the updates informative.

Yesterday's City Council meeting was notable for what legislation didn't pass. With the help of some of my colleagues--Bob Fiorett (2nd Ward), Brendan Riley (42nd Ward) and Mary Ann Smith (48th Ward)--I was able to delay a vote on a misguided piece of legislation--the establishment of a "Legislative Inspector General," the proposed "watchdog" of the Chicago City Council.

The proposal calls for the creation an office of "Legislative Inspector General" whose sole function would be to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by aldermen and their staff.

At first blush, this sounds like a good idea. After all, over twenty aldermen have been convicted of criminal misconduct in the last twenty years. And the current city Inspector General has no power to investigate aldermen since the aldermen twenty years ago voted to exempt themselves from his investigatory purview.

However, after peeling away the layers of this legislation what emerges is a paper tiger that will serve only to further fuel public cynicism and disgust.

This new Inspector General could launch an investigation only on the basis of a "sworn complaint," which would be shared immediately with the alderman. How many people with knowledge will report any wrongdoing if they knew their identity would be revealed immediately?

It's like telling a police officer he must obtain a sworn complaint from a citizen who witnesses a street mugging and share that witness's identity with the alleged perpetrator before he could begin to investigate.

Having two inspector generals, one for the executive branch and one for the legislative branch, also creates more bureaucracy and conflicting jurisdictions at a time when we're cutting back on essential city services. The sponsors of this measure have attached no cost estimate to this new position. What is the salary of this new inspector general? How much staff and support services will he or she have?

What if an investigation of an executive branch employee also involves misconduct on the part of an alderman or aldermanic staff assistant? Who conducts the investigation? Wouldn't the requirement that witness identity be disclosed deter the executive branch inspector general from cooperating with the legislative inspector general?

We in the City Council should demand answers to those questions before we vote on this legislation.

My colleagues say a separate City Council inspector general is necessary to avoid the possibility of being intimidated and harassed by an inspector general who is appointed by Chicago's Mayor. Yet, ironically, under their proposed ordinance, the legislative inspector general reports to the Chicago Board of Ethics that is appointed by, you guessed it, the Mayor!

I'm not unmindful of the need to have an inspector general who is completely independent of the Mayor, nor am I unsympathetic to the legitimate concerns of my colleagues who fear an unaccountable inspector general.

Our nation's history is replete with notorious examples of rogue prosecutors and investigatory authorities who abuse their authority to harass and intimidate often for political purposes. But the answer to that concern is not to create a sham inspector general, but to give the City's current Inspector General complete independence and extensive oversight.

Last year, a dozen of my colleagues joined me in introducing an ordinance to establish an independent commission that would recommend to the Mayor and the City Council three candidates for the City's Inspector General. The Mayor would appoint one of the candidates from the list of three subject to the approval of the City Council. The Inspector General would then report to and be overseen by the independent commission.

This commission would consist of respected law enforcement officials, former judges, members of the bar and other respected community leaders.

Unfortunately, my proposal never saw the light of day and remains buried in the City Council Rules Committee, the traditional resting ground for reform legislation.

If my colleagues were truly interested lifting the cloud of public cynicism that rests over city government in general and the City Council in particular, they would embrace my proposal for a truly independent inspector general who could investigate public corruption aggressively and fairly and free from political influence.