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Editorial: Give city inspector general some muscle

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

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Updated: June 10, 2013 2:04PM

Chicago needs a City Hall inspector general who has the tools to do the job right.

On Wednesday, 20 aldermen introduced a sensible ordinance that would strengthen the office of inspector general. Mayor Rahm Emanuel shouldn’t object — the key elements are reforms he called for when he was running for office, though he’s lost his enthusiasm for them since then.

An independent inspector general is an important defense against insider dealing and other public corruption. But to be effective, the IG needs to be free to follow evidence wherever it leads. That’s not possible if the mayor’s office has the power to say no whenever it wishes.

Wednesday’s ordinance includes three important measures. It would establish a budget floor for the IG, so a mayor irritated by an investigation couldn’t retaliate by slashing the IG’s budget. It would give the IG independent spending authority, so he or she wouldn’t have to ask for permission to spend money from the very people who might be under investigation. And most important, it would give the IG the authority to enforce subpoenas to get information.

Subpoena enforcement was the subject of a six-year legal battle that ended in March, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the City Council never gave the IG authority to independently go to court to enforce subpoenas. This ordinance would fix that.

In a related move, members of the Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus and the Paul Douglas Alliance unveiled a plan to create and fund an independent budget analysis office by merging the legislative inspector general into the City of Chicago IG and tapping the city’s innovation loan fund for $250,000.

Such an office would make it possible for the aldermen to actually understand complex financial proposals before they vote on them. This is how rubber stamps stop being rubber stamps.

Soon, for example, the Council must vote on a revision of the controversial parking meter contract. But aldermen have no way of independently verifying how much the changes — free Sunday parking but later meter hours in some areas — might cost or save motorists.

Chicago needs both of these reforms.

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