Aldermanic’s ethics reform program could be a second chance for Lightfoot to fulfill his wish – Chicago Tribune
Four years ago this month, Lori Lightfoot announced her intention to run for mayor of Chicago. The former federal prosecutor and president of the Chicago Police Board has made promises such as pursuing ethics reform, overhauling the city council, stamping out corruption and convening a panel of ” journalists, lawyers, public watchdogs and other stakeholders…to make recommendations to increase transparency.”
Those wishes helped Lightfoot defeat powerful Cook County Council Speaker Toni Preckwinkle, a longtime Democratic operative. With his victories in every quarter and with 70% of the total vote, the message was clear: the people wanted reform.
That remains to be determined. Although Lightfoot made significant efforts and had some success in her first round of ethics reform, she did not deliver on all of her promises. Now, as she plans to run for re-election in 2023, Lightfoot’s record on reform is mixed.
Just two months after Lightfoot was sworn in as mayor in 2019, the city council voted 50-0 to pass historic changes. The council expanded the Office of Inspector General, prohibited certain types of practices outside the law by city officials and employees, created new lobbying registration requirements for nonprofits, and slightly increased financial penalties.
On other questions, she drifted.
She promised that the city council would have its own lawyer. “Currently, the company’s attorney acts as an advisor to the executive and legislative branches of municipal government; it presents obvious conflicts of interest and prevents the city council from receiving the independent advice it needs to make informed decisions on behalf of the people of Chicago,” Lightfoot said in a position paper titled “Cleaning Up City Government.” released by his campaign in 2018. Yet the two main proposals to add a lawyer come from Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, and Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th. The mayor has shown little interest in advancing either.
Lightfoot also lambasted his predecessor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for its lack of responses when it comes to requests for public records under the Freedom of Information Act. “The current administration is flouting its FOIA obligations in an effort to prevent people from gaining access to important information about the workings of city government,” she said in “Cleaning Up City government”.
She promised that once in office, she would sign an executive order directing all agencies to minimize the use of FOIA exemptions and hold them accountable for failure to respond to those requests. No such order has been signed.
Although these reforms were good ideas, she did not follow through.
Meanwhile, two serving aldermen, Carrie Austin, 34th, and Ed Burke, 14th, have been charged with bribery and are awaiting trial. Then-11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson was convicted in February of federal tax evasion charges. And another, former 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis has been charged with corruption while working with federal investigators.
This is a moment Mayor Lightfoot should seize to bring ethics reform back to the fore. Aldus. Michele Smith, 43rd, offered a way to do this: a far-reaching ethics reform proposal that would address many of the stubborn problems that still haunt city government.
The new ethics program, which incorporates recommendations from the policy team of the Better Government Association and the Chicago Board of Ethics made to Smith, increases the maximum potential financial penalty for violations to $20,000 from $5,000. The Ethics Board will also be empowered to impose a financial penalty equal to the amount that was wrongfully earned, nullifying any profit the offender may have made.
The proposal also expands the definition of potential conflicts of interest to include matters involving individuals or businesses from which an elected official’s spouse or partner expects to derive income.
Steve Berlin, executive director of the Ethics Council, has been working on these recommendations for years. Berlin told me, “They reflect the board’s long experience in advising thousands of city employees, officials, lobbyists and others on ethical issues each year.”
Lightfoot, however, has so far remained silent on the matter. She needs to lead this, not only for her upcoming re-election effort, but also for her legacy. Win or lose, enacting these sweeping reforms will change the way business is done in Chicago for decades to come.
Why wouldn’t she want to be remembered as the mayor who cleaned up town hall? Lightfoot must not only own the idea of good government reforms, but also promote them, get votes for them, and implement them. This is how she can open the door to a new generation of good, like-minded government leaders.
Lightfoot can be the bridge to the new way of doing business in this city. But the reformer who beat the machine must not become the machine.
Bryan Zarou is director of policy for the Better Government Association.
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