Chicago aldermen say the city needs a department of environment — not an office. But what’s the difference?

Smaller and with less of a budget than many city departments, Lightfoot’s new climate office lacks enforcement power most of all, detractors say.

cloud of dusk in Little Village street
A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after the Crawford Coal Plant smoke stack was imploded, Saturday, April 11, 2020. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
cloud of dusk in Little Village street
A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after the Crawford Coal Plant smoke stack was imploded, Saturday, April 11, 2020. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen say the city needs a department of environment — not an office. But what’s the difference?

Smaller and with less of a budget than many city departments, Lightfoot’s new climate office lacks enforcement power most of all, detractors say.

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On the first page of Lori Lightfoot’s 2019 environmental policy proposal, the then-mayoral hopeful listed a nine-point strategy to protect residents from environmental harms. No. 1: Reopen the city’s previously shuttered Department of Environment, which had been disbanded under Rahm Emanuel in 2012.

As the mayor nears the end of her first term and seeks another in 2023, it’s clear she will not fulfill her promise. Instead of a standalone department, Chicagoans are getting a 10-person office — the “Office of Climate and Environmental Equity” — and a study on the feasibility of eventually creating a department.

“Running is not governing,” Lightfoot said recently of her 2019 promise, responding to a question from WBEZ about why voters should give her another four years to make good on her first-term vow.

“We can’t just do the politically expedient thing,” Lightfoot added. “And I’m not going to support people who say just throw a name on it, put some vacancies there and we’ll call it a day.”

The mayor’s move to create a 10-person independent office was a step up from previous proposals to create a smaller team, on a smaller budget, within the mayor’s office. Still, her decision not to create a department contributed to weeks of pushback from aldermen across the political spectrum who say an office is not enough to combat climate change in Chicago.

Lightfoot’s opponents are sure to point to this decision as an example of her failure to make good on a campaign promise.

But, all of this drawn out debate raises an underlying question — what’s the difference between a city office and a city department anyway, and does it matter?

The short answer is there is no clear answer.

“What you’ve put on the table is a question, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a riddle that in certain circumstances becomes existential,” said Joe Ferguson, the city’s former inspector general who for more than a decade was responsible for investigating city departments, offices, agencies and more.

Power and size

To start, Chicago’s municipal code does not define an “office,” a “department” or any other structure — like a commission, or agency — that falls under the government umbrella. Instead, the powers of each agency are defined when that new agency is created, according to the city’s law department.

But there has been some historical consistency in the powers and size of departments and offices.

Departments in the city of Chicago typically have multimillion dollar budgets, a department commissioner who is appointed by the mayor but approved by the City Council, dozens of staff, stature in the city and the power to enforce municipal code. The Department of Buildings, for instance, enforces the city’s building code.

There’s arguably a greater level of public accountability in city departments than offices: Commissioners have to defend their budgets, goals and progress to the City Council each year, for instance.

City offices range in their power and size, but they tend to be smaller, with budgets in the hundred-thousands, fewer powers and leaders who don’t need council confirmation.

“[Offices] generally lack the equal standing and requisite authority to, and I’ll put this in sort of rough terms, bang heads that need to be banged in other parts of city operations in order to effectuate what they’re supposed to be effectuating,” Ferguson said. “They often have to work by convening, and convincing and coordinating and without the actual authority to hold departments to account.”

Small or large, city offices can play an important role in the functioning of government. The City Council Office of Financial Analysis, or COFA, with a budget of $317,680 a year with three employees, serves as an independent budgetary arm that helps the City Council analyze costs associated with legislation, budget proposals and more.

Then there’s the Office of Inspector General — a $13 million office with the power to investigate city agencies. And the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, a $109 million agency that has the major responsibility of coordinating between police and fire departments to respond to emergencies.

Though those offices appear to be outliers in size and scope, it makes some sense that they fall under the “office” umbrella, said Ferguson, as both offices are responsible for coordinating or working with multiple departments — a hallmark responsibility of an office.

Lightfoot’s Office of Climate and Environmental Equity is much more limited in size and scope than those offices, however.

The “Office of Climate and Environmental Equity” would develop equity-focused policy recommendations and oversee the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 62% by 2040.

But it will not be able to enact environmental policy or enforce environmental law. Under the legislation, the climate office is tasked to “guide,” “encourage,” “develop” proposals and “educate.”

And it will have one of the smallest budgets of any other independent city agency, or its past iteration. The office’s $967,060 budget for 2023 pales in comparison to the $52 million allocated to the Department of Environment, mostly from grant funding, in its last year of existence, according to budget documents. Eliminating the department was supposed to save the city just $3.6 million.

As she faced pushback from aldermen, Lightfoot tweaked some aspects of the new office to make it more akin to a department. For example, the new office’s leader — known as the city’s chief sustainability officer — will be appointed by the mayor but require approval from the council. And like departments, the office will likely have to defend its budget to the City Council each year, after Lightfoot made it a standalone office with its own budget, as opposed to it falling under her office’s spending plan.

Lack of enforcement

Still, that is not enough to appease certain council members who’ve long pushed for a department and are perplexed at Lightfoot’s refusal to create one outright.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a department. It’s 10 staff, which is fewer staff than in the mayor’s Press Office, which is 15 people. And it doesn’t have the same power or strength as a department,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, who chairs the council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus. He has been outspoken about the need for an environment department, and is backing one of Lightfoot’s opponents in the upcoming mayoral race.

Some aldermen complain an office won’t have the key power of enforcing environmental policy. When the previous Department of Environment shuttered, it spread enforcement positions across numerous departments — the health, buildings and business affairs departments, according to the mayor’s office. Enforcement slowed significantly in the first seven years following its disbanding, according to an investigation by the Better Government Association.

“I think that the coordination is pretty challenging if you don’t have any of those [enforcement positions] under the Department of Environment, because they all have different bosses,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward.

Still, Lightfoot’s administration defends its record on environmental accountability in her tenure, even without a separate office or department, pointing to its development of a climate plan for the first time since 2008, officials say. Lightfoot also touts the fact her administration brokered a major agreement with an electricity supplier that will help transition all city-owned buildings to renewable energy by 2025.

But Lightfoot has also been heavily criticized for her record on environmental justice. That’s in particular over her handling of a 2020 botched implosion of a smokestack that covered the city’s Little Village neighborhood in smoke during the height of the pandemic’s first wave.

Officials are not crossing a standalone department off their list, though, calling the office a good “first step” and again promising to revisit the idea — if they’re in office to do so, that is. The city’s budget director Susie Park told aldermen in recent weeks the city will also study the feasibility of an environment department in the future and “hopefully in 2024” come back with a “robust department.”

The city’s current Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar added that many cities have both a coordinating environmental office to study and recommend policy, and a department of environment to enforce it — a potential model for Chicago.

The city has set a deadline of June 2023 for the feasibility study, but did not answer questions about how they’ll ensure the study, which officials hope will be done pro-bono, will meet it.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.