Brown: ‘Volcano’ blowing smoke in his defense of handling of inspector general
BY MARK BROWN July 9, 2013 9:20PM
Updated: August 11, 2013 6:49AM
The late Roger Ebert was a big fan (one of the very few) of the original “Joe Versus the Volcano,” a box office flop starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, which makes me wonder what he would have thought of the stage version now playing in Chicago.
This production of “Joe vs. the Volcano,” appropriately named by Sun-Times’ headline writers, pits city Inspector General Joe Ferguson against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the original, Hanks stars as a guy who hates his job so much he welcomes his doctor’s diagnosis of a fatal disease and volunteers to jump into a volcano on the tiny island of Waponi Woo as a human sacrifice.
In the City Hall version, Ferguson is a guy whose feelings about his job are a personal secret but seems mostly to want to be left alone to do it as he sees best for however long he has left, which won’t be much longer if the Volcano gets his way.
Ferguson’s four-year term expires in November, and the mayor has decided that, instead of reappointing him, he will require Ferguson to re-apply with other candidates to a blue ribbon panel that will conduct the search and recommend “individuals.” The mayor still makes the appointment.
While it’s clear the Volcano is only too happy to sacrifice Ferguson, he’s probably still hoping to find a way to strand him on Waponi Woo.
We don’t really see much in public of the mayor’s Volcano character these days, hardly at all in these past two years, although we know he’s there, steaming on the inside.
Occasionally, we’ll get a little peek at the inner strife, such as when Ferguson issued a report Monday disclosing the city was stonewalling his effort to audit the new grid-based garbage collection system.
This was just the latest chapter in an escalating conflict between the mayor and inspector general, with Ferguson intent on maintaining his independence and Emanuel determined to show him who’s boss.
On Tuesday, Emanuel offered disingenuous defenses for both the garbage audit situation and his decision to make Ferguson reapply for his job.
He told reporters he welcomed an audit of the new garbage system “once it’s fully implemented,” suggesting it was still too early for the city to “see and realize the $18 million in savings” he has promised.
Then in the next breath the mayor noted that the projected $18 million savings is how he’s paying to expand the city’s recycling program. So which is it? Does the city have the $18 million savings to spend or not?
As Ferguson’s report made clear, the inspector general already had agreed to hold off on analyzing the financial data until later, but ran into the City Hall roadblock when pressing for details about what performance measurements were being used to gauge the effectiveness of its garbage operations.
Keep in mind: the inspector general is designed to be an independent office. The inspector general ought to be the one deciding when the time is right to conduct an audit or an investigation, not the mayor. The mayor is free to tell us later what he thinks is wrong with the audit.
Even more ridiculous was the mayor’s attempt to duck responsibility for his decision to ease Ferguson out of his job.
The mayor noted the new selection procedure had been recommended by his Ethics Reform Task Force, led by government ethics specialist Cindi Canary and the late state Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch. Actually, the task force report made clear the mayor could also choose to reappoint the inspector general, and that’s what the ordinance setting forth the new process says, too.
With Netsch dead and Canary out of the country, I checked in with another task force member, former federal prosecutor Sergio Acosta, to be clear on this point.
“The idea was that the mayor could reappoint Ferguson without going through that process,” Acosta said.
Of course, he’s also free to go with somebody new. He just ought to own the decision instead of hiding behind others.
Personally, I’d like to see Ferguson put Emanuel on the spot and re-apply for the job. If the fix isn’t in, the selection panel would have to recommend him as one of its finalists. But if Emanuel doesn’t want Ferguson, he’s not going to pick him, so you can understand why Ferguson may not be eager to go through the process.
The thing I like about Ferguson is that he hasn’t backed down an inch in an effort to save his job. He’s been as aggressively independent in the role as his predecessor, David Hoffman, and with the added bonus of being someone without even a hint of political ambition.
In the movie, Tom Hanks jumps into the volcano, magically survives and gets the girl. Ebert would be the first to tell you nobody beats a volcano in real life.