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City stonewalling audit on garbage collection, inspector general says

Inspector General Joe Ferguson. | Sun-Times

Inspector General Joe Ferguson. | Sun-Times

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Updated: August 10, 2013 6:17AM



The feud between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the aggressive inspector general he inherited escalated Monday with a new claim from Joe Ferguson: that City Hall stonewalled his attempt to audit Emanuel’s grid-based garbage collection system and verify the mayor’s $18 million-a-year savings claim.

The latest salvo comes after the Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Ferguson has been told he must reapply for the $161,856-a-year job he holds, setting the stage for his exit after two years under Emanuel.

Asked Monday whether he is insulted by the mayor’s demand that he reapply, the inspector general said, “I don’t do feelings.”

Ferguson’s predecessor, David Hoffman, embarrassed and infuriated former Mayor Richard M. Daley before resigning to run for the U.S. Senate.

And Ferguson’s relationship with Emanuel has been every bit as tense and frosty from the moment the new mayor took office.

The controversy stems from Emanuel’s efforts to block Ferguson’s pursuit of unbridled subpoena power — all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court — and Ferguson’s attempts to hold Emanuel to honor his broken promises to expand the inspector general’s investigative powers to the City Council, the Public Building Commission and the Chicago Park District.

Ferguson has embarrassed the mayor with audits that question Emanuel’s bold cost-saving claims and suggesting ways the mayor can raise revenue and reduce expenses.

For the mayor’s part, he has pointed to his efforts to hold the IG’s office harmless from budget cuts impacting other city departments and to the many rounds of ethics reforms he has introduced. And Emanuel has argued that inspectors general around the nation get along just fine without power to enforce their own subpoenas.

In the latest blow-up, the inspector general pointedly accused Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams of dead-ending his grid garbage audit by walking out of a meeting with Ferguson’s audit team when pressed for information about his plans to monitor operations.

Williams was further accused of stonewalling requests to resume the discussion.

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to save $60 million annually by making the switch from an inefficient, ward-by-ward garbage collection system to a more efficient grid system.

When the citywide transition was completed last spring, the mayor acknowledged without explanation that the change would generate just $18 million a year in savings, a claim Ferguson tried, but failed, to verify.

“There is a lack of appreciation or understanding as to what our role is and how we need to go about it,” Ferguson said Monday.

“If the numbers bore out the administration’s figures, we would be reporting that,” Ferguson said. “But we were shut down when we attempted to determine what impact the switch has had in terms of: resources, savings and efficiencies; how the city is measuring that; how the city intends to continue to improve performance and how it plans to address, what they acknowledge is an inefficient use of personnel” stemming from a ward-based supervisory structure.

Williams — a former deputy police superintendent — responded to the stonewalling charge by accusing Ferguson of jumping the gun.

“The appropriate approach to auditing the large scale transition of Chicago’s refuse collection system is to roll the program out completely, review for issues and best practices, adjust strategies accordingly, and audit,” Williams was quoted as saying in a statement.

“The grid garbage collection system . . . has proven to be far more cost-effective and efficient than the ward-based system and will reduce refuse collection costs by at least $18 million annually. If the Office of the Inspector General had evaluated the entire system once it was completely in place, rather than attempting to audit the system during its adoption, they too would have arrived at that conclusion.”

Another City Hall source, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that Williams ended a March 2013 meeting with Ferguson’s audit team, but only “after he had responded to the same questions over and over again.” The source characterized as “totally false” Ferguson’s claim that his staff was denied access to Streets and Sanitation personnel after that meeting.

The Sun-Times has reported that Emanuel is using a little-noticed provision in the latest round of ethics reforms laying out the process for choosing an inspector general to force Ferguson’s hand.

Either Ferguson puts his resume on the pile and his faith in a blue-ribbon selection panel handpicked by the mayor — daring Emanuel to fire him — or he considers the mandate an insult and walks away from the job.

Asked Monday whether he intends to reapply, Ferguson, whose term expires in November, said, “Nothing’s decided at this point. We’re about the work and we’re gonna continue to do the work.”

Ferguson’s claim on Monday about getting stonewalled marks the second time in two months he has questioned the mayor’s claims about a marquee city program.

Two months ago, Ferguson concluded there is no evidence to substantiate the city’s claim that red-light cameras — now embroiled in a $2 million bribery scandal — have either reduced accidents or are installed at the most dangerous intersections.



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