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Mayor Emanuel should push for new ethics ordinance now

Updated: November 8, 2012 11:59AM



Ever heard of the Chicago Board of Ethics?

If the answer’s “no,” don’t worry about it — you’re not alone.

Few people — even those who work in government — know about this board, which is supposed to be a watchdog that enforces ethics and campaign-finance rules at City Hall, but in reality has been more of a do-nothing lapdog enfeebled by a weak ethics ordinance and institutional inertia.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent a strong reform message that decades of decadence are ending by dumping the entire ethics board and nominating seven new members with impressive watchdog credentials and stellar backgrounds in business, law, religion and public service.

That’s an important step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more to do before taxpayers have the open and honest city government they want and deserve.

For starters, the ethics board can play a meaningful role in eradicating corruption only if it’s backed by a strong new ethics ordinance that, among other improvements, clarifies the panel’s now-blurry identity and bolsters its authority to enforce the rules.

The current ordinance empowers the ethics board to act in the dual capacity of investigator and judge — roles that are incompatible and confusing.

The board’s expertise is adjudicating and disciplining, based on the facts, not digging up the evidence as investigators.

Sniffing out corruption and ethical transgressions are the bailiwick of the city’s high-powered inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, and the City Council’s legislative IG, Faisal Khan, who is new to Chicago and short on investigative firepower but determined to have an impact.

Then there’s the issue of waste: Investigations spearheaded by the ethics board are likely to trip over related inspector general inquiries. Using twice as many resources to pursue the same allegations doesn’t serve the best interest of taxpayers.

The mayor’s Ethics Task Force, which is making recommendations aimed at strengthening the ethics ordinance, suggests that the city IG and the legislative IG be the investigators; the city’s law department attorneys the prosecutors, and the ethics board the judge.

That makes perfect sense, according to author, former prosecutor and ethics adviser Scott Turow, who told the task force “a clear delineation of roles, where one body investigates and the other adjudicates, is critical.”

Turow is right on, but Emanuel has been slow — some would say downright reluctant — to embrace his task force’s recommendation.

Let’s hope the mayor comes around because the stakes in this ethically challenged city are enormously high.

Emanuel empowered an ethics task force, dumped an ineffectual ethics board and handpicked a new one.

Now it’s time to get the task-force recommendations through the City Council; empower the legislative inspector general, and divide up the responsibilities in the most efficient and effective way.

That’s also the best way to attack the “Chicago Way.”

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at ashaw@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9097.



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