THE BLOG
05/14/2010 12:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toothless Tigers and Missing Blue Carts: A Report From the Chicago City Council

To the surprise of no one, the Chicago City Council Wednesday voted to create their own "legislative inspector general," a post designed to quiet critics who rightly challenged the City Council's decision twenty years ago to exempt itself from the purview of the city's existing inspector general.

I voted "no," and spoke out forcefully against the measure on the floor of the City Council. It's not that I'm against City Council oversight. To the contrary, I've long advocated extending the powers of the city's inspector general to include aldermen and their staffs.

But this new post will do nothing to provide real oversight. As I said on the floor of the City Council, my colleagues have created a "toothless tiger" and put into place excessive reporting hurdles that will discourage all but the most courageous whistleblowers from stepping forward to report misconduct.

I wrote extensively in my post last month of the many shortcomings of this proposal. Under the measure, the City Council would appoint its own inspector general. Who can blame the public for rightly asking how can you trust the fox to guard the hen house?

Investigations can only begin after the whistleblower signs a sworn complaint that is shared with the subject matter of the complaint. Who in their right mind would subject themselves to possible retaliation, especially if the complainant is an employee of the subject matter?

The inspector general can only investigate alleged misconduct that occurred within the last two years. Any investigator or prosecutor will tell you that witnesses to wrongdoing often come forward only after they've severed their ties with the alleged wrongdoer, and that often occurs more than two years after wrongdoing takes place.

What happens if the city inspector general's investigation leads to an alderman or aldermanic employee? Who conducts the investigation from that point forward? The city inspector general or the legislative inspector. The new law is silent on this question.

Finally, by creating two inspectors general, one for the executive branch and one for the legislative branch, the City Council created an entirely new level of bureaucracy at a time when we're cutting back on essential city services. The ordinance creating this new position contained no cost estimate for the new position.

My City Council colleagues who support limitations on the powers of the inspector general claim they are necessary to avoid politically motivated investigations. I'm not so naïve as to believe politically motivated investigations do not take place. But the way to minimize the possibility of such investigations is to increase the independence and oversight of the inspector general, not limit his or her power to investigate misconduct.

I'm afraid that my colleagues' attempt to assuage the public by creating a new inspector general post has instead served only to fuel the public's cynicism about the City Council's true commitment to reform.

Also adding to public cynicism and anger is when elected leaders make promises that they don't follow through on.

Three years ago, Mayor Daley's Administration announced with great fanfare the launch of the City's "blue cart" (a/k/a "blue bin") recycling program. The blue cart program replaced the long-discredited "blue bag" recycling program in which homeowners were told to place all their recyclable materials in blue bags, which were tossed into the same truck that collects trash.

I opposed the blue bag program from its very inception, sharing the concerns of environmentalists that the program wouldn't work. As it turned out, our skepticism was justified. Less than ten percent of the waste collected was actually recycled.

The blue cart program was supposed to change this pathetic recycling figure. Residents were to put recyclables into a separate blue trash cart, which would be hauled away by a recyclables-only truck and taken to Resource Management, an organization that specializes in recycling. The program was to start out on an experimental basis in a few wards and then gradually expand to include the entire city by 2011.

One problem: the expansion has stopped. Only one-third of the city now enjoys the benefits of the blue carts. Residents of the other two-thirds of the city, including the 49th Ward, must haul their recyclables to a drop-off center, or they simply don't recycle at all.

At a time when environmental stewardship, conservation and saving our planet are at the forefront of the public's consciousness, Chicago is the only large city that fails to have a comprehensive citywide recycling program.

That is why I was pleased to co-sponsor my colleague Alderman Tom Allen's (38th Ward), "order," directing the Daley Administration to extend blue cart recycling to all Chicago households before September 1st. Hearings on Alderman Allen's order will be held shortly and I will keep you apprised of its progress.