Despite clashes with city hall, corruption watchdog sails toward reconfirmation

October 15, 2013

WBEZ/file
Inspector General Joe Ferguson on WBEZ.

A panel of Chicago aldermen quickly voted on Tuesday to reappoint the City Hall watchdog to another four-year term, despite his previous public clashes with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

The unanimous vote by aldermen on the Budget and Government Operations committee sets up Inspector General Joseph Ferguson for a final confirmation vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said any bad blood between the Inspector General and the mayor’s office should not be a mark against Ferguson.

“If he’s disagreeable with the mayor or the City Council, that suggests to me perhaps he’s doing his job,” Reilly said after Tuesday’s vote.

Ferguson was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, when it took aldermen all of six seconds to sign off on his reappointment. A spokeswoman for Ferguson, Rachel Leven, declined to comment on the vote.

Emanuel announced last month that he would re-appoint Ferguson, with the understanding that the former federal prosecutor-turned-corruption fighter would leave his post next summer. Legally, Ferguson’s reappointment would allow him to stay on for the full four-year term, but he has said he plans to “move on to other things.”

The mayor had earlier insisted Ferguson must reapply for his job when his term runs out at the end of November, but Emanuel changed his mind after the two men met, face-to-face, in late August.

Since being appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009, Ferguson has greatly expanded the role of his office. Instead of solely attacking fraud and corruption by city workers, Ferguson has also tried to beef up his role as a fiscal watchdog during a time when Chicago has faced historic budget deficits.

But Ferguson’s also hasn’t been shy about issuing reports critical of how Emanuel carries out some  signature policies - or about calling out the mayor’s administration when it doesn’t cooperate with investigations.

In July, the Inspector General published a report detailing how one Emanuel deputy abruptly left a meeting when auditors tried to ask him about the city’s new ward-by-ward trash collection, which the mayor says will save $18 million a year. Emanuel later said said the system was still being rolled out, and wasn’t ready for an audit.

The two offices have also clashed about whether the IG’s office should be kept out of the city’s political budget-making process, and whether Ferguson should be allowed to enforce his own subpoenas in investigations. The subpoena fight eventually wound up before the Illinois Supreme Court, where justices ultimately ruled that the inspector general must rely upon the mayor’s lawyers to legally enforce subpoenas, even if the subpoenas were part of a probe into the mayor’s office itself.

Ferguson’s final confirmation seems likely on Wednesday, said 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin, the chair of the Budget Committee. But Austin hopes Ferguson will engage the City Council more often during his second term, instead of leaving aldermen to hear about his reports first from the media.

“Since his appointment comes in my committee, I think that we should have had - or should have been having - regular dialogue,” Austin said Tuesday. “But he vets everything in the public, as opposed to vetting anything with me at all. So I have [an] issue with that.”

Al Keefe covers politics for WBEZ. Follow him at @akeefe.