Blago indictment should spur reform in city government

Monday, April 13, 2009
by Marc J. Lane

Reprint permission from the April 13, 2009 issue of Crain's Chicago Business. 

The reform commission recently launched by Gov. Pat Quinn has recommended sweeping legislative action to prevent future state officials from indulging in the corrupt practices with which former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been charged. If Alderman Joe Moore (49th) gets his way, the Chicago City Council also will take a serious stand against political corruption.

As notorious as the governor's mansion has become, by no means have dirty deeds been confined to Springfield. Since 1970, 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of public corruption. But even more chicanery may have gone unpunished or, worse, undetected. When the inspector general's post was created in 1990, the City Council, fearing that factions might turn the inspector general against their rivals for political gain, exempted itself from his jurisdiction. At long last, Mr. Moore and at least a dozen co-sponsors are out to close that loophole by empowering the inspector general to investigate allegations of misconduct by aldermen.

While Mr. Moore's initiative would unquestionably help restore public trust in city government, the measure has its detractors. Alderman Bernard Stone (50th), the most vocal, has argued that the mayor could exploit an inspector general's oversight of the City Council by directing investigations and thereby influencing legislation.

But Mr. Stone's opposition maybe more personal than principled. His ward organization was the subject of a vote-fraud probe during his 2007 re-election, a probe that led Mr. Stone to vow to "destroy" Inspector General David Hoffman's office, which has earned high marks for integrity. That probe ended with the county prosecutor charging Mr. Stone's ward superintendent with ballot fraud, among other charges. His case is pending.

Still, prudence demands safeguards to ensure the inspector general's independence from both the mayor and the City Council. That's why Mr. Moore's bill would wisely deny the mayor the unfettered right he has today to appoint anyone as inspector general as long as the City Council approves. Instead, he would be obliged to nominate one of three finalists selected by a panel including prosecutors and judges. To help free the office from politics, Mr. Moore would increase the inspector general's term to six years from four, and to protect that person from retaliatory budget cuts, he would lock in a minimum annual budget.

Under the alderman's proposal, the inspector general's annual budget would grow to nearly $9 million from about $5.8 million, an expense some might resist in the depths of a recession. But by uncovering fraud and waste, the new auditors Mr. Hoffman is expected to hire would likely pay for themselves.

In the wake of the stunning indictment accusing Mr. Blagojevich of selling off state jobs and contracts, reform proposals are coming fast and furious at every level of government. Mr. Moore's, the first of its kind in any large city, merits your support.

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©2009 by Crain Communications Inc.

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