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Inspectors general need sufficient funding

Budget day came and went at Chicago City Hall a couple of weeks ago with nary a mention of two very important public servants and the essential offices they run: Joe Ferguson, inspector general for departments under the mayor, city treasurer and city clerk; and Faisal Khan, inspector general for the aldermen and their offices.

That’s not surprising — the two IG offices will only cost about $6.1 million next year, or less than 0.1 percent of the city’s $7 billion spending plan.

So they’re obviously not a high budget priority.

But they’re a high oversight priority for groups like the Better Government Association because their watchdog work is similar to ours.

And considering Chicago’s long history of corruption, it would be nice if Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the majority of the City Council valued them more.

Perhaps they do, at some level, but it didn’t play out in the budget proposal, which recommends IG funding at the same level as this year, even though both offices are facing heavier workloads.

Ferguson’s already limited by a “lack of resources” to investigating only the most serious corruption allegations, or about 5 percent of the tips that come in, which means he’s had to pass on the other 95 percent, or nearly 1,200 complaints this year alone.

Doesn’t sound like a fast track to good government, does it?

We appreciate the city’s fiscal constraints, but wouldn’t it be nice to see Ferguson equipped with a few more dollars to chase a few more corruption complaints?

Khan, the legislative IG, is even more hamstrung by scarce resources and minimal authority, which is how the aldermen wanted it when they created his “paper tiger” office in 2010.

His annual budget of $350,000 is just enough to cover him and five part-time investigators.

And like a school kid who needs a potty break, he has to ask permission to launch an investigation.

Khan and Ferguson not only lack sufficient resources to handle their current workloads, they’re about to take over hundreds of campaign finance and lobbyist investigations previously overseen by the city’s ethics board.

“Less is more” may have immortalized architect Mies van der Rohe, but it’s hardly a recipe for cleaning up a city with an inbred culture of corruption.

It’s clear there’s tension between Emanuel and Ferguson. And no love lost between Khan and some members of the City Council.

But that’s OK — the mayor and the aldermen don’t have to like the people assigned to watch them and flag their mistakes.

They do, however, owe it to the taxpayers to equip the IG offices with the resources they need to fight for better government.

Several aldermen had a good suggestion earlier this year: Guarantee each IG a fixed percentage of the annual city budget so their funding increases automatically as overall spending goes up.

But that proposal was sent to the traditional burial ground for reform ideas — the Council’s Rule Committee — where it still hasn’t been unearthed.

So here we have a 2014 budget proposal that’s up by $430 million, or 6.6 percent, over last year, without an extra nickel for Ferguson or Khan.

Money talks, but apparently not to watchdogs.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.



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