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Is City Council ready for reform?

City Chicago Inspector General Joseph Fergus |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times files

City of Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson | Rich Hein~Sun-Times files

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Updated: April 25, 2013 6:55AM



Not sure if I offended, motivated or simply woke up some Chicago aldermen in a recent column when I dusted off the old Paudy Bauler cliché about City Council still not being ready for reform.

I was reacting to Council’s spineless yet thoroughly predictable rejection of the strongest provisions in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ethics package.

But hey — there may be a glimmer of hope after all.

Some aldermen say they are ready for reform. So ready, in fact, they’ve doubled down to form two separate reform groups.

Nine aldermen recently unveiled the “Progressive Reform Coalition,” a beefed-up iteration of an ad hoc group that intermittently rallied around various issues.

Not to be outdone, 10 other Council members set the bar dauntingly high by dubbing themselves the “Paul Douglas Alliance” in honor of the venerated U.S. senator from Illinois who skillfully combined a liberal social agenda with fiscal conservatism in the 1950s and ’60s.

With two reform factions apparently blooming in what’s been, historically, a good government desert, cynical voters are right to wonder if this is real, or more smoke and mirrors.

The early answer: Maybe a bit of both, so stay tuned.

It’s encouraging that both caucuses are supporting issues near and dear to our watchdog hearts.

The Paul Douglas group’s first move was to re-introduce a previously deep-sixed proposal to expand the authority of Chicago’s formidable Executive Inspector General, Joe Ferguson, to include City Council.

That would probably displace the current Legislative IG, Faisal Khan, who can’t do much corruption busting because the Council won’t give him enough staff or investigative firepower.

Backers of the re-introduced resolution argue that expanding Ferguson’s jurisdiction would save tax dollars, improve efficiency and more aggressively fulfill the IG’s watchdog mission.

That’s true, and a fine idea, but skeptics suspect the group may be pretending to back real reform by endorsing a measure with little chance of passage.

The concern is justified because earlier this year some coalition members opposed an expansion of Khan’s oversight powers.

So we’ll keep an eye on the group to see if it truly embraces “reform” or simply utters the word disingenuously.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Reform Coalition is trying to rescue a privatization reform ordinance being held hostage in the Council’s Rules Committee, chaired by Ald. Dick Mell.

The measure would protect taxpayers from slam-bang privatization deals like the parking meter abomination by requiring an open, transparent, accountable process for every privatization proposal, beginning with Midway Airport.

Reform groups and regular citizens are demanding a public hearing on the proposal, but so far Mell is ignoring their emails and phone calls.

Let’s see if the progressive coalition can keep the heat on and get it done, instead of just talking, which epitomizes most of the failed aldermanic reform movements of the past.

So where does that leave us? Well, here’s one way to view it:

Reformers are like Cubs fans — optimistic every spring that this is the year and broken-hearted every fall when it’s not.

The calendar says it’s spring again, and Alexander Pope captured the spirit of the season perfectly when he wrote, “hope springs eternal.” So I’m going with Pope’s cliché over Paddy Bauler’s. At least for now.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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