Cleaning Up City Hall

November 30, 2010

Micah Maidenberg, Progress Illinois

Corruption scandals cropped up with depressing regularity during the Daley years. Could the next mayor and city council change that culture?

There’s been a lot of tea-leaf reading about how the culture of Chicago’s City Hall might shift once longtime Mayor Richard Daley steps down from his post next spring.

During Daley’s tenure, a series of scandals — from the Duff family’s fraudulent maintenance business getting contracts meant for women to the Hired Truck Scandal to Daley patronage aide Robert Sorich’s clout list — unfolded at depressingly regular intervals. Insiders and those with connections to Daley’s once-formidable political machine did well during the mayor’s time on the 5th floor of City Hall. Chicago’s reputation as one of the country’s most corrupt cities was not dispelled by Daley.

Changing this reality is something the next mayor and City Council can’t take a pass on. While the latter body’s review of the Daley administration’s practices have been notoriously tepid, at least one concrete reform proposal is now on the table. Thirty-second Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack’s Procurement Review Ordinance (PDF) would give city council members oversight over city contracts worth more than $500,000; the council has had no formal mechanism to review any mayoral contracts since 1989, when Daley took office.

Ideas are starting to trickle in from the mayoral contenders, as well.

Miguel del Valle thinks the City Council should go further than Waguespack’s bill and review mayoral contracts starting at $25,000. Gery Chico promises transparency if he’s elected. He’d make data from city departments “easily accessible,” according to a press statement.

Chico’s position is complicated, to say the least, by the fact that he served Daley for years in various leadership roles before heading off to a law firm that includes city hall lobbyists. Chico is not listed on the city’s current registered lobbyist run-down (PDF), but a name partner in the firm — Marcus Nunes — is. Chico’s legal group has deep ties to city government.

Mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel’s past boost from a political army led by Daley ally and water department chief Donald Tomczak (Emanuel said he did not know the man) casts a shadow on his ideas for city hall ethics, as does his lucrative stay on Freddie Mac’s board. Nonetheless, Emanuel broached the lobbyist issue last night during an interview with Chicago Tonight‘s Carol Marin. He said as mayor he’d sign an executive order banning his appointees from lobbying the city for at least two years after they left government.

This is a subject Emanuel, an experienced D.C. hand, should know plenty about. The “revolving door” of ex-elected officials and former federal government workers toiling for K Street influence shops is an everyday reality in Washington. The Center for Responsive Politics finds that 336 former members of Congress now hustle as lobbyists in the capital. A Public Citizen report from last year tallied more than 900 ex-federal employees (70 of whom were members of Congress) working as lobbyists for the financial services industry alone.

The Obama administration, which Emanuel left to run for mayor, banned appointees from lobbying officials in the executive branch after they left their posts while Obama is in office. During Emanuel’s time as a congressman, he co-sponsored legislation in 2007 that tightened disclosure over lobbyists and earmarks, among many other provisions.

In Chicago, corporations large and small, non-profits, and other organizations can purchase the lobbying services of any number of ex- and current officials close to Daley, according the current city lobbyist registry (PDF).

Mary Richardson-Lowry, an attorney who Daley appointed to chair the Board of Education (she formerly worked as commissioner in the Department of Buildings), reported lobbying City Hall on behalf of AT&T, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank, and others. Ex-mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Teele lobbied on behalf of 10 clients. Ex-fire commissioner Cortez Trotter is a city lobbyist. So is ex-police superintendent Terry Hillard.

Had Emanuel’s proposal been in place during the Daley years — why isn’t it, by the way? — some of these folks would be free to lobby away. Hillard, for example, left the police department in 2003. Which begs the question of whether Emanuel’s proposal is strong enough. Recall that the Obama administration’s ban runs for the duration of Obama’s time in office, while Emanuel’s proposal would cease after two years.

Emanuel told Marin that stopping the revolving door locally would mean his appointees are in government for the right reason — for public service. Here’s a clip from last night’s interview:

Those themes, along with some of the other ideas broached on the campaign trail and Waguespack’s proposed ordinance, suggest Chicagoans can expect at least some movement on ethics issues from the next City Council and mayoral administration.