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City Council OKs overhaul of ethics board

The City Council met City Hall Council Chambers October 31 2012. Alderman Tom Tunney wore Chicago White Sox shirt with

The City Council met at City Hall, Council Chambers on October 31, 2012. Alderman Tom Tunney wore a Chicago White Sox shirt with Alderman Balcer's name on the back for Halloween. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: December 2, 2012 2:06PM

Chicago’s do-nothing Board of Ethics was swept aside Wednesday in a housecleaning aimed at restoring public confidence and preparing the board to assume a powerful new role: as judge and jury punishing violators of the city’s ethics ordinance.

The City Council unanimously approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to replace all seven members of a Board of Ethics famous for never having taken action against a Chicago alderman during an era in which dozens went to jail on federal corruption charges.

Moments after the final vote, Emanuel said he ordered a “fresh beginning” to set the stage for yet another round of ethics reforms.

“I commend all of you for your willingness to serve the city and give guidance. But, at the following City Council [meeting] about four weeks from now, I will have a second package of reforms as it relates to the ethics code and the ordinances on the books, continue to improve what we have and remind us all that who we work for is our taxpayers and our residents,” the mayor said.

“They are really here to give you guidance … so we don’t have actually cases as it relates to ethics and people get clear rules and guidance about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. Ahead of time, thank you for your willingness to serve. Thank you for allowing us as a city to have a fresh start and a new chapter as it relates to what it means to have the honor of serving the public.”

All but one of the new members attended Wednesday’s City Council meeting. They include: former Cook County patronage monitor and Circuit Court Judge Julia Nowicki; former Illinois Appellate Court and Circuit Court Judge Michael Gallagher, a former attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; former longtime first deputy city budget director Russ Carlson and Stephen Beard, executive vice president and general counsel of Heidrick & Struggles, a worldwide executive search firm. Beard will serve as chairman.

Rounding out the revamped, seven-member board are: Fran Grossman, director of the Chicago Microlending Institute, a program that trains non-profit lenders to make micro-loans to small business; Daisy Lezama, interim director of policy implementation for the Community and Economic Development Association, and Mary Trout Carr, a pastor, theologian, educator and author.

“Our goal is to inspire confidence on the part of the public in the work of the board, to ensure that we’re setting high ethical standards for city employees and city officials and to ensure that, when there are infractions, that those allegations are treated fairly, they’re handled thoroughly and that, if there is discipline, that it is imposed in a consistent and impactful way,” Beard told reporters at his confirmation hearing earlier this week.

The chairman was asked why City Hall has seen a seemingly endless parade of corruption scandals despite scores of federal investigations and convictions over the years.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure that Chicago is necessarily unique in that fashion. You can point to the private sector. You can point to other jurisdictions. There’s no shortage of people running afoul of the rules. I don’t think there’s anything unique about Chicago,” he said.

Carlson brings the ultimate insider’s perspective to his new role on the Ethics Board.

He got a job with the city right out of high school and spent his entire career at City Hall, the last 16 years as first deputy budget director.

“I believe the role is, not only in enforcing, but in teaching and making sure that city employees affected by the ethics ordinance know it. And I hope, frankly, that we don’t have as many cases that the Ethics Board has had” in the past, Carlson said.

Earlier this year, Emanuel’s Ethics Reform Task Force delivered a 67-page report that envisioned a powerful new role for a revamped Board of Ethics.

Instead of prodding the mayor to deliver on his unfulfilled campaign promise to expand the power of Inspector General Joe Ferguson, the task force recommended that Ferguson co-exist with the City Council’s own inspector general for “three-to-five years” and that both be 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 has said he plans to follow those recommendations.

Asked earlier this month why Chicagoans should believe the revamped Board of Ethics will be any different than the old one, the mayor argued that his seven appointees “have a kind of background and professionalism that had been absent.” Then, the mayor said it was “OK to have a critical eye,” because he does, too.

“I met with the chairman. I’ve given him the clear direction. I expect them to be re-invigorated. ... I want them to pursue ... their appointment with a sense of purpose,” Emanuel said.

“That said, you’ll have the job — all of us will have the job — to make sure they’re not just another rubber stamp. ... Based on their history, based on their resume, based on their background and the way they have pursued what they have done in the past, I have confidence. My confidence is kind of a, to use a phrase by another President [Ronald Reagan], ‘Trust, but verify.’”

From Day One, Emanuel has made ethics reform a cornerstone of his new administration as if to draw the curtain on the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals that cast a giant shadow over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22-year administration.

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