What would it take to restore the public’s trust in Chicago government, and City Council — a body that has seen the convictions of 37 of its members since 1969?
That’s a question that’s been on Ald. Michele Smith’s mind for several years now, as she has worked to tweak the city’s ethics rules to root out the corruption that has plagued Chicago government for decades.
“Changes of ethics rules is a marathon, not a sprint,” Smith told WBEZ of her ongoing work as the chair of the council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, created in 2019 by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Smith, with help from the Better Government Association’s policy team and the Chicago Board of Ethics, has crafted what’s being characterized as an “overhaul” of the city’s ethics rules. It could come up for a vote from the full City Council on Wednesday.
Her proposal includes strengthening the city’s rules against nepotism, campaign contributions, lobbying of City Council members and increasing fines for violating those rules from a maximum of $5,000 to $20,000. But many agree that it is not a panacea.
“I think we should be realistic about what this is — it’s nibbling around the margins with a modest-sized bite or two,” said Joe Ferguson, who led government oversight for 12 years as Chicago’s inspector general. “You don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of the good. But this is pretty modest in the grand scheme of things.”
Smith’s proposal, first introduced in April, has been delayed, negotiated behind closed doors, and then was unanimously passed with little debate by the council’s ethics committee last week. Here’s what you need to know as it heads to the full City Council.
Smith is trying to end the ‘I got a guy’ thing in City Hall
At the heart of Smith’s ethics proposal is an anti-nepotism clause that extends conflict of interest rules to the spouses and relatives of elected officials and government employees.
“The centerpiece of this legislation is trying to end the ‘I got a guy’ thing in City Hall. And usually it’s a relative,” Smith said.
Currently, the city’s law prohibits employees and officials only from managing contracts with firms that employ or contract with their spouses or family members. But the new amendment would prohibit them from working on any “administrative, legislative action or decision” that affects their family, according to Steve Berlin, the executive director of the Board of Ethics.
For example, Berlin told aldermen at a recent committee meeting, an inspector with the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection can’t work on a review of a business license application filed by her son’s employer.
While perhaps an obvious example of a conflict of interest, there’s no law that prohibits it.
“If it is prohibited it would be prohibited by departmental rule,” Berlin said. “But this would codify that. This would allow the substantive penalty of the ethics ordinance to be used.”
A watered-down recusal policy
First introduced in April, a strong tenant of the ordinance had been how elected officials would recuse themselves from a matter when necessary.
Smith envisioned a city where aldermen with a conflict of interest on a matter would physically leave the council chambers or a committee meeting room when their colleagues were debating or voting on it.
But that provision was watered down after an 11th-hour negotiation with Lightfoot and pushback from her colleagues.
“That’s a bad look. And there’s no good rationale for it,” Ferguson said. “And from what I’ve seen, it was aldermen themselves that thought it wasn’t necessary. But if it wasn’t necessary, then why did we bother at all with this provision?”
Smith said while “leaving the floor is a very best practice, and it is more leading edge,” her colleagues had “legitimate questions” about how to leave a Zoom meeting.
“You can not participate, you can mute yourself on mute, but then how do you leave exactly? And then how do I get back for a vote? So some of that was practical,” Smith said.
Instead, the proposal before aldermen now states that when officials recuse themselves, they will be allowed to stay in the room. They will then be required within 24 hours to file details about the conflict of interest with the Chicago Board of Ethics. The Board will then publish that filing, Berlin said.
Ending the privilege of the City Council floor — a “relic of the past”
Former Chicago aldermen who have become lobbyists currently have a special privilege, unlike any other member of the public, in that they’re allowed to lobby their former colleagues during committee or full City Council meetings from the council floor.
“Allowing former members of a legislative body to lobby — to actually be able to lobby people while they’re in session is a relic of times past. And I’m glad that it will — I hope that it will — be dead,” Smith said.
Her proposal would instead ban former aldermen who work as lobbyists from lobbying on the floor of the Council Chambers.
It’s a provision that seems directly aimed at former 49th Ald. Joe Moore, who frequents City Council meetings. He recently lobbied his colleagues to introduce an ordinance that would allow private booting companies to operate citywide. Moore was hired by a private booting company to lobby for the ordinance.
In response to the provision that would ban him from lobbying on the floor, Moore told WBEZ he will “abide by whatever rules the City Council passes” and denied that he uses his floor privileges to influence votes.
“I do not lobby on the floor of the City Council and I never needed an ordinance to tell me not to,” Moore said.
Certain unlimited campaign contributions still allowed
The proposal would also attempt to prevent government officials from trading favors for campaign cash.
Currently, contractors that do business with the city can only contribute up to $1,500 to candidates.
The new proposal would expand that limit to contractors who do business with the city’s sister agencies as well — such as the Chicago Transit Authority or Chicago Public Schools.
But it would not apply to subcontractors doing business with the city or its sister agencies.
Ferguson called that a major missed opportunity.
“Why is that significant? There’s way more subcontractors than there are major contractors. The subcontractors essentially are the fraud — the campaign finance fraud — workaround for big and general contractors,” he said.
Smith had included such a prohibition on subcontractors in an original version of her proposal, but it was later removed.
She said it was stripped because without an existing database of subcontractors, it’d be impossible to enforce.
Ferguson disputes that.
“That’s not true. That information exists. It exists in city records. It exists in city sister agency records, and is simply a matter of annual declaration coming from the general contractors regarding the subcontractors they’re using on city contracts,” he said. “And even if it were hard to enforce, you know, part of the job is to do the right things the right way and make the best effort.”
“Ethics reform occurs only at the margin, in the narrowest way possible”
If passed, this would be the second significant amendment to Chicago’s ethics ordinance under Lightfoot and spearheaded by Smith.
The first, Smith said, was a direct response to the 2019 bombshell indictment of Ald. Ed Burke, who has pleaded not guilty to allegations he used his clout at City Hall to steer business to his private property tax firm.
That amendment prohibited City Council members from doing certain outside work, including any work that would result in an adverse effect on the “relative tax burden of any city residents.”
“We did some pretty bold things at that time,” Smith said, pointing to the 2019 amendment in response to a question about whether she thinks her current proposal would have prevented any of the three indictments — of Alds. Ed Burke, Carrie Austin and Patrick Daley Thompson, who was convicted by a jury — the City Council has seen in the past five years.
“The answer to that question is no,” Ferguson said. “The problem with Chicago is ethics reform occurs only at the margin, in the narrowest way possible to meet the last set of phenomena that we encountered.”
Ferguson called for a “holistic” review of the council’s ethics ordinance, as opposed to piecemeal amendments over time, and took issue with the process being led by aldermen themselves.
“A holistic review by the very people who are affected by the matter is not sufficiently neutral and objective,” Ferguson said. “That’s not to say, to Ald. Smith, she did not approach this in a best effort and as objective a way as possible. But she’s in the very body, and in the very system for which she is advancing, in kind of a negotiated collaborative fashion, reforms.”
Bryan Zarou, who leads the BGA’s policy team and helped craft the legislation, agreed more work needs to be done, particularly on campaign finance reform. But he praised Smith for agreeing to work with outside groups like his to craft the proposal.
“Imagine 30 years ago trying to get council members to vote on something that goes against what they do … I think this is a huge step in the right direction.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @mariahwoelfel.
Correction: This story previously misstated that former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson is currently in prison. He has not yet reported to prison.