Reform Ain’t Easy In Chicago — Unless There’s An Election And Indicted Alderman
Chicago aldermen and others who want to be mayor made a ruckus at City Hall Monday with dueling press conferences emphasizing Chicago’s ready-for-real reform.
That includes plans that have stalled for years, like public financing of local campaigns, banning outside employment, and expanding the authority of the city’s inspector general to investigate aldermen.
The catalyst: Ald. Ed Burke’s declining influence in the wake of a federal indictment. Last week, the nearly 50-year veteran of the City Council was accused of shaking down a business in his ward. Holding hostage support for city permits, zoning changes, and other licensing matters has been the most common downfall of indicted Chicago aldermen.
But Burke isn’t just any other alderman, a point Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) of Rogers Park, stressed when he resurrected some of those stalled reform plans. “The most powerful obstacle standing in the way in a lot of these ethics reforms has had his sail — shall we say — trimmed considerably.”
“That will give people the courage to change,” said Moore.
Burke has represented his Southwest Side ward since 1969. At City Hall, he’s considered as powerful — or more powerful — than the mayor with his roster of wealthy law clients and his cunning ability to derail legislation that might scale back his influence.
In 2016, when the council gave City Inspector General Joe Ferguson the authority to investigate aldermen, Burke blocked the reform plan. It would have allowed anonymous complaints against aldermen and would have given the OIG authority to audit the city’s opaque workers compensation fund.
Until last week, Burke had nearly unchecked power over those workers compensation claims and the fund’s annual $100 million budget.
As mayoral candidates and aldermen made noise on the second floor lobby of City Hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave notice he’s ordering an independent audit of the fund. Last week, the mayor said he’s working on a package of reforms.
For years, the Progressive Caucus has drafted legislation aimed at curtailing Burke’s power. But those drafts have remained in legislative limbo. On Monday, Progressive Caucus Chair Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) said the group has been “vindicated.” His colleagues blasted the mayor for allowing his floor leader to take over Burke’s role as chairman of the Finance Committee.
“Let's make one thing very clear. Mayor Emanuel has never been a leader on reform,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward). He and others suggested Waguespack should take over Burke’s position as finance chair. “Now is the time to take this seriously. Chicagoans are fed up with it, and there are very few individuals in that council that have actually been fighting for change.”