When it Comes to Ethics, City Council Wants its Own Set of Rules

A committee of aldermen dealt a blow today to the mayor’s latest attempt at ethics reform aimed in part at strengthening oversight of City Council. The City Council’s rules committee defied the mayor and decided not to vote on the new ethics package, even after the mayor’s office had watered it down several times to placate them.

But some aldermen said they were ‘embarrassed’ at the way their colleagues were reacting to the reforms.

“To the public at large, it just makes us look bad,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th). “It makes us look like we’re trying to have added protections that ordinary city employees don’t enjoy.”

Chief among the worries was the provision that would allow the Legislative Inspector General to open an investigation on an alderman based on an anonymous complaint. Yesterday, a revised ordinance weakened that provision. And just minutes before today’s hearing and scheduled vote, the mayor’s office got rid of the provision entirely.

When asked before today’s meeting if he was capitulating to aldermen who wanted to play by their own set of ethics rules, the mayor responded by touting the broad range of ethics reforms he had already passed. And he said there would be more to come.

“Our work is not done in one ordinance or one piece of an ordinance,” the mayor said. “My goal is to hold City Council, the mayor, people in the executive branch, to the highest standard. There’s not one way to achieve that goal. I’m open to changes.”

Today’s compromise would have forced a whistleblower to instead sign his or her name to a complaint brought before the Legislative Inspector General. But if the complainant refused to swear to the truthfulness of the complaint, it would then have to be vetted by the mayor’s appointed ethics board before an investigation could go forward.

The head of the ethics board, Steve Berlin, faced brutal questioning from aldermen who feared the revisions didn’t go far enough in protecting them from political opponents who might come after them with false accusations.

“The concern is this could be used as a blunt instrument to hurt aldermen, to take them down during an election,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

The ordinance calls for fines between $1,000 and $2,000 and some jail time for anyone found to make a false complaint.

The mayor last year appointed a four-member Ethics Task Force to come up with a set of reforms. Their report called anonymous complaints a crucial component to reform.

“It’s standard practice in almost every other city and state to have anonymous complaints,” said task force member, Cindi Canary.

It’s also standard practice in almost every other area of city government. The executive Inspector General, which has oversight over the mayor’s office and dozens of city departments, can move forward on an investigation without a signed complaint.

The Ethics Task Force report warned that preventing anonymous complaints would have a “chilling effect” and deter potential whistleblowers from coming forward to point out aldermanic wrongdoing.

“If it’s good enough for city employees, why not us?” said Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), who also expressed disappointment at the actions of his colleagues. “If the evidence is not there, then what do they have to worry about?”

View the PDFs below to read the substitute ordinance, the highlighted changes, and the recommendations from the Ethics Task Force.