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Ald. Matt Martin (47th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

City Council ethics chairman concerned about Mayor Brandon Johnson’s use of the city’s do-not-hire list

Ald. Matt Martin wants a hearing after former mayoral staffers complained of mistreatment and then were put on the do-not-hire list.

The chair of the City Council’s ethics committee wants department officials to testify on the city’s do-not-hire list after the placement of former staffers of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office “raised a lot of real questions and concerns.”

Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward and chair of the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, filed a resolution Wednesday calling for the city’s departments of human resources, law and the Office of Inspector General to testify on the city’s “ineligibility for rehire” policy — which was updated earlier this month.

Martin’s call for a hearing comes after WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune reported on the allegations from former mayor’s office staffers who complained of mistreatment and then were placed on the do-not-hire list.

“I think it’s really important that after good reporting is done highlighting potential flaws in an existing do-not-hire process, that the city take appropriate steps to remedy those problems,” Martin told WBEZ Friday.

The Chicago Tribune first reported last year on the termination of several staffers who were holdovers from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, and subsequent placement on the do-not-hire list, after they complained about mistreatment and being yelled at by senior leadership in Johnson’s administration.

In interviews with WBEZ, staffers described diminishing job responsibilities and hostility for previously working under Lightfoot that contributed to “a very sexist attitude.” Former staffers said they later learned they were placed on the do-not-hire list, despite being told they were being let go due to a change in administration that would not affect future employment with the city. A memo providing justification for their placement on the list was dated more than a month after the staffers were terminated.

“I appreciate Ald. Martin’s interest and hope that the ineligible for rehire list is something that is used with a bit more clarity and procedure from this,” said Josué Ortiz, the former director of digital strategy under Lightfoot and Johnson, who successfully petitioned his removal from the do-not-hire list.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office declined to comment.

Representatives for the city’s departments of law and human resources did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The do-not-hire list, which is typically reserved for cases of serious misconduct, stretches back to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, and includes former staffers who were placed on the list as early as 2000, according to a copy of the list obtained through an open records request. However, some placed on the list have previously found jobs with alderpersons and other sister city agencies.

The Department of Human Resources updated its “ineligibility for rehire” policy earlier this month. It’s unclear what prompted the overhaul.

The city’s law department and the Illinois Department of Human Rights did not respond to questions on whether the update was related to a pending IDHR complaint by Dora Meza, a former mayor’s office staffer who alleged her placement on the list was retaliatory.

Martin said the updates to the policy were necessary to clear up ambiguous language and “there are a lot of steps in the right direction here.”

“The former policy left a lot of unanswered questions in terms of how vague it was,” Martin said. “In certain circumstances if someone was just terminated or discharged, that it’s possible that, in and of itself, could get them on a do-not-hire list, which seems to not be entirely appropriate if true.”

Geoffrey Cubbage, a policy analyst for the government transparency nonprofit Better Government Association, said the updated policy appears to remove that ambiguity and makes clearer the instances that would warrant placement on the list, such as documented violations of personnel rules, if an investigation substantiates serious misconduct and if an employee retires or resigns in lieu of being fired or let go. Cubbage said the updates also appear to allow for the retroactive placement of a former employee if it was discovered they had engaged in serious misconduct.

“It’s good the department went back and revisited this and laid out some real basic principles which seem to pretty much be: to end up on this ineligible for rehire list you have to have done something wrong or been accused of doing something wrong and then quit before the investigation was finished,” Cubbage said. “And at the time of your dismissal, you have to have been told what the wrongdoing was, and that you’re going to be put on this list.”

The updated policy argues placement on the list “is a hiring standard and designation, not a disciplinary action.” It defines “serious misconduct” that could warrant placement on the list and goes into more detail on a memo departments must submit providing justification for the do-not-hire designation. It also stipulates former employees can’t appeal the designation until a year after they were placed on the list — rather than any time after. It notes the HR Department commissioner will consider a request earlier than a year “if the basis for the request is that the designation was made in error.”

Ortiz, who had not yet reviewed the policy changes in detail, said he had concerns about the provision. Ortiz’s appeal — which was first made less than a month after he was placed on the list — was acted on after more than seven months of repeated requests. Meza said her September appeal has gone unanswered.

“I would hope that there is a procedure allowed for a petition before one year and that it’s not solely up to the discretion of the commissioner,” Ortiz said.

Martin said the hearing will provide an opportunity to determine whether the policy’s changes are as strong as they need to be in order to provide adequate due process and clarity to the thousands of city employees.

“It’s absolutely critical when someone is serving the city, and oftentimes doing very challenging, but critical work, that they be treated respectfully,” Martin said. “And policies like this help to ensure that that does happen.”

Martin said a hearing date has not been set. The ethics committee meets next month, where Martin said legislation that would establish fines and 90-day suspensions for lobbyists who improperly donate to a mayor’s campaign and Johnson’s appointments of two Ethics Board nominees may be considered.

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago politics for WBEZ.

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