Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Win Win in Chicago?

Governmental ethics in Chicago is a touchy subject. Often, it appears the top rule is simply, don't get caught.

While academics say that Chicago has a strong council/weak mayor system, at least on paper, the practice is that each alderman has his or her own closely-guarded turf, while all of the meaty decisions are made by the Mayor's office. Each alderman controls (or expects to control) all city services with the ward, from garbage pick-up to zoning matters, while the mayor sees the Council as something between a nuisance and a rubber stamp.

The result is a government that routinely produces stories of scandal, corruption, favoritism and waste. With little oversight, problems abound. But a story in today's Sun-Times brings good news: Mayor Daley wants to give the city's Inspector General oversight of Chicago aldermen. And in response, several aldermen want the Council to take oversight of city contracts. Both of these are reasonable and appropriate steps.

It's unfortunate that the usual news coverage of City Hall presents this debate primarily in the context of a power struggle between factions or personalities. There are public policy concerns here, too, and they should be first and foremost. There's not enough oversight in the city as it is. Both the mayor and the Council need people in a position to say, "that's a bad idea, you should rethink that;" people who can really force a reconsideration, even a modification of the original plan.

Checks and balances have not been part of Chicago's political DNA for decades, but it's high time they are. Whatever the personalities, if the city can swap IG oversight of aldermen for Council oversight of contracts, that's good for everybody.

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