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Watered-down ethics reform ordinance clears City Council

Mayor Rahm Emanuel following Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday February 13 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel following Chicago City Council meeting, Wednesday, February 13, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 15, 2013 1:21PM

The City Council proved Wednesday that it “ain’t ready for reform”— at least not the kind that allows anonymous complaints to be made against aldermen — prompting Mayor Rahm Emanuel to warn that the omission “reinforces a cynicism about you.”

“I say that as a former member of Congress who sat where you sat. I know the trepidations,” Emanuel told aldermen from the rostrum after the unanimous vote.

“I believe all of you work really hard. You don’t get credit for how hard you work. You get an unfair rap. But when you take an action like you just took, it reinforces a cynicism about you.”

Emanuel predicted that aldermen would ultimately come around to accept anonymous complaints and one thing is certain: He won’t stop trying.

“I want you all to know this is not the end of the process. I’m gonna continue to do it,” the mayor said.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations culminating in a temporary mayoral defeat, aldermen approved Emanuel’s latest round of ethics reforms.

But it only happened after the mayor repeatedly watered down the ordinance to satisfy aldermen dead-set against allowing the City Council’s handpicked inspector general to investigate anonymous complaints.

Thanks to the re-write, anonymous complaints against aldermen and their employees remain off-limits amid fears that challengers or disgruntled constituents could dish anonymous, phony dirt to smear and potentially defeat the incumbent.

Signed and sworn complaints still need a “finding of reasonable cause” by the revamped Board of Ethics before the legislative inspector general could investigate.

Emanuel’s plan to establish a two-year revolving door during which departing aldermen would be prohibited from lobbying City Hall was reduced to one year and the effective date was pushed back to Jan. 1, 2014.

And those who lobby on behalf of not-for-profit organizations would not have to register as lobbyists.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, predicted that the Council’s “disappointing” decision to rule out anonymous complaints would have a “chilling” effect on whistleblowers.

“This is a legislative body that has had more than 30 of its members go to prison for corruption in recent years. Yet, they don’t seem to understand the need for whistleblower protection and ethics,” Shaw said.

“People have to know that they’ll be protected from retribution, intimidation or punishment if they report wrongdoing. If you can’t file an anonymous complaint, you’re likely not to file a complaint at all because you’re afraid to give your name. You’re dealing with powerful people who are capable of exacting retribution. That has a chilling effect on complaints.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) couldn’t agree more.

“We are creating a double standard: One for us and one for the rest of city government,” Moore told his colleagues.

Moore acknowledged that aldermen “put a target on our backs every time we take a vote, tell someone no” or make development decisions on lucrative projects.

But he said, “We knew the job was tough when we took it and we owe it to the public to let them know we’re not different than anyone else.”

The salvaged ordinance paves the way for Inspector General Joe Ferguson and Legislative IG Faisal Khan to co-exist and become investigators only.

Violators of the city’s ethics ordinance would then be prosecuted by the Law Department with the Board of Ethics holding hearings and recommending suspensions, firing, fines and other punishment.

Currently, the inspector general’s office investigates wrongdoing and recommends punishment to city department heads, who must act on those recommendations or explain why not.

Emanuel’s ordinance would also empower both IG’s to settle cases and require Ferguson to begin his investigations no more than two years after a violation occurred and to complete those investigations within two years.

Both IG’s would be prohibited from running for office for two years after leaving their jobs.

The process for selecting an inspector general would be modified to include a Blue Ribbon Panel that would propose candidates to the mayor.

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