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Aldermen Settle on 'Watered Down' Role for City Council Watchdog

By Ted Cox | February 10, 2016 6:02pm
 Ald. Patrick O'Connor was counting votes and guiding support on competing ordinances on the inspector general.
Ald. Patrick O'Connor was counting votes and guiding support on competing ordinances on the inspector general.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — Aldermen on both sides of a hotly debated issue agreed Wednesday that they settled for a "field goal" rather than going for a "touchdown" in granting Inspector General Joe Ferguson the power to oversee the City Council.

All called it reform, but some charged it "watered down" the stiffer reforms a council committee originally passed a month ago.

At issue was a substitute proposal put forth Wednesday by Ald. Will Burns (4th), in his last council meeting before leaving for a job with Airbnb. It countered a measure sponsored by Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) to give Ferguson the full power to investigate aldermen, which cleared committee last month only to be deferred by a parliamentary maneuver by Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

 Ald. Scott Waguespack charged that the substitute ordinance
Ald. Scott Waguespack charged that the substitute ordinance "waters down the original version."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Burns, clearly carrying the water on a distasteful issue as someone about to leave the council, insisted his substitute also gave investigative powers to Ferguson, but limited him to "breaches of ethics" and not the ability to conduct audits on government efficiency on aldermanic affairs.

Burns argued that would be "stretching the powers of the inspector general" and that aldermen need to feel free on "how we do our jobs" and appeal to their constituents, not the inspector general. He said aldermanic spending menus and expense accounts were already matters of public record, with no need for the inspector general to examine them.

Smith, however, lashed back at what she called "jurisdictional obstacles ... limiting oversight," and urged her colleagues to "pass this ordinance without diluting," saying her original proposal "fosters real change and not cynicism."

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) called Burns' substitute "a watered-down version" of the original, adding it "goes backward and waters down the original version that we had."

"We are at the goal line here," said Ald. John Arena (45th), urging passage of Smith's original. "If we fumble now, that is what we'll be remembered for."

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) picked up on the football metaphor, saying the two proposals were the difference between a touchdown and a field goal. He argued for Burns' proposal, saying Ferguson "might make the point that we're inefficient," but that was for voters to decide, not the inspector general.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), however, countered that teams that settle for field goals are usually "losers."

"There are obviously some jurisdictional gaps in the substitute," he said. "We should be picking the right ordinance," he added. "The substitute, quite frankly, doesn't do what our constituents are looking for."

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) replied with what he called a "reality check," saying breach of ethics, not government efficiency, "is what most people in this city are concerned about," and adding, "Please don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Reilly, however, insisted Smith's original was "perfect" and should be adopted.

Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th), who was overseeing the debate, and shepherding the substitute along, as chairman of the Workforce Development Committee, was counting the votes as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's floor leader, and he saw to it that Burns' substitute was first accepted by the council, by a 25-23 vote, and soon after adopted by a 29-19 vote.

Emanuel embraced it in any event, saying, "I happen to think it was a significant step forward." Yet, in a news conference after the meeting, he refused to say how he might have voted if the council had been deadlocked and he had been forced to cast the deciding vote.

Ferguson welcomed the new duties, even as he issued a statement saying the council "still failed to fully meet the moment."

Ferguson said aldermen "retreated," adding they "squandered what could and should have been a singularly successful moment in the city’s civic history."

The 23 aldermen who stood by Smith's proposal and voted against Burns' substitute included: Smith, Waguespack, Arena, Reilly, Joe Moreno (1st), Pat Dowell (3rd), Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Marty Quinn (13th), Toni Foulkes (16th), Matt O'Shea (19th), Willie Cochran (20th), Michael Zalewski (23rd), Michael Scott (24th), Christopher Taliaferro (29th), Milly Santiago (31st), Deb Mell (33rd), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Nicholas Sposato (38th), Anthony Napolitano (41st), James Cappleman (46th), Ameya Pawar (47th), Harry Osterman (48th) and Debra Silverstein (50th).

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