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Aldermen blast anonymous complaints component in mayor’s ethics reform

Chicago Alderman Carrie Austher office 507 W. 111th St. Friday August 17 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Chicago Alderman Carrie Austin in her office at 507 W. 111th St., Friday, August 17, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:55PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered the ethics reforms Thursday he promised after cleaning house at the do-nothing Board of Ethics but at least one of the changes won’t fly with Chicago aldermen.

Aldermen have insisted that they’re ready for reform, just not the kind that allows challengers to dish anonymous, phony dirt that smears the incumbent.

When they hired their own inspector general, resisting then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s efforts to give Inspector General Joe Ferguson that power, they mandated signed and sworn complaints and prior authorization from a Board of Ethics that had served as little more than a paper tiger.

Now, Emanuel wants to lift that political protection — by allowing “written anonymous complaints” against aldermen and their City Council employees as well as written complaints initiated by the council’s own inspector general.

The proposal went over like a lead balloon with aldermen concerned about political witch hunts.

“I don’t want it to be anonymous. If you’re accusing me of something, you need to be known. I need to be able to face my accuser,” said Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee.

“Anybody can say you’re doing anything. If I have no way of knowing what you’re saying about me, that’s unfair.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) called the mayor’s plan “ridiculous,” “crazy” and a non-starter.

“That means anybody with any ax to grind against anybody can just send out an unverified, anonymous complaint,” Sawyer said.

“We’re all for ethics reform and making sure we’re transparent but enough is enough. This is borderline silly. We’re gonna get a glut of unsubstantiated complaints. We’re gonna have to spend time, instead of working in our respective wards, to address some of these frivolous complaints because they didn’t like the service they might have received in the ward or someone was, in their opinion, maybe less than courteous to them. We shouldn’t have to waste time on things like this.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) called anonymous complaints “problematic” because of “the nature of the job” of being a Chicago aldermen.

“There’s a lot of people who like to target aldermen for whatever reason,” Pawar said.

“You need to have whistleblower protection. But you’ve got blog sites out there that throw out pretty slanderous material against aldermen. That creates this constant divisiveness.”

Mayoral spokesman Tom Alexander said Emanuel proposed allowing anonymous complaints against aldermen and their employees because it was proposed by his Ethics Reform Task Force.

City employees would be allowed to petition for reimbursement of legal fees spent defending themselves against bogus charges, under the mayor’s plan.

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 Ferguson’s power, the task force recommended that Ferguson co-exist with the City Council’s own inspector general for “three-to-five years” and that both IG’s 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’s new ordinance would implement those changes and more.

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

Ferguson and Legislative IG Faisal Khan would also 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. The definition of a lobbyist would be expanded to include those representing not-for-profit organizations.

Emanuel was asked why, with all of the waves of ethics reforms he has proposed, he has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to empower Ferguson to investigate aldermen, the Chicago Park District and Public Building Commission.

He would only say, “You never stop changing. You never stop reforming. You never stop improving.”

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