Former watchdog Joe Ferguson wants to study Chicago’s government structure

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson launches a new endeavor aimed at transforming what he calls Chicago’s “19th Century machine patronage culture” into a new structure of government capable of solving modern problems.

After a 12-year run as the city’s watchdog, Ferguson resigned last fall to avoid being kicked out by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She inherited from Ferguson, whom she openly criticized, then clarified that he would not be reappointed.

During a stint at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Ferguson had the idea of ​​starting a nonprofit he calls “Re-Imagine Chicago” to do something that wouldn’t hasn’t been done in this town for nearly 80 years.

In other words, re-examine Chicago’s governance structure – from the mayor’s office, city departments and the city council to local government agencies under the mayor’s control. The aim is to show how it is “different from everywhere else” and how these differences “are linked to our chronic diseases”.

With “first-generation research” conducted in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Government, Ferguson said his ultimate goal was to seek change in state law.

That’s what it takes to enable a citizens’ commission to recommend changes in the structure of a self-governing state like Chicago. These changes would then be ratified by voters in a binding referendum, which currently does not exist in the city. All referendums are now consultative.

It’s a lofty goal, and will ultimately require “over a million dollars” in fundraising for the first year alone and millions more if it takes longer.

But examining “how power works, who holds it” and how unbalanced it is in this notoriously corrupt city is a passion project for Ferguson.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson speaks during an April 2019 press conference at City Hall.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times File

He’s a former federal prosecutor whose work as an inspector general was instrumental in the corruption scandals that still swirl around defendant Ald. Edward Burke (14th), indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and former zoning committee chairman turned FBI mole Danny Solis (25th).

“In Chicago, it’s not balanced. Extraordinary power is held by the mayor. There really are no checks and balances. The city council is not an effective and meaningful oversight and partner with that essential tension that drives real-world vetting of policy proposals that work better,” Ferguson said.

“In some ways, we have a 19th century culture of patronage, a kind of machine, dumped into a 20th century government that is not very well positioned to respond to 21st century communities and issues. It’s Groundhog Day here, always. … You can almost write the same story in varying cycles in just about any neighborhood in our city every two years.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to empower the inspector general to investigate other local government agencies, only to drop the idea – even after the Chicago Park District lifeguard scandal underscored the need for such expanded powers .

Over the years, there have also been periodic recommendations to halve the size of the 50-member city council.

Rahm Emanuel floated the idea during his first mayoral campaign, only to drop the idea as the hot potato it was after taking office. He also retained Burke as chairman of the finance committee after threatening to dump him.

Ferguson said the new commission will almost certainly reconsider the size of the board. But it would be equally important to shine a light on what he called an “ineffective committee structure.” The mayor chooses committee chairs, and half of the 19 committees rarely, if ever, meet or only do ceremonial work.

As an example of board dysfunction, Ferguson pointed to Lightfoot’s decision to appoint a special committee on a Chicago casino, but then bypass the panel altogether and push Bally’s $1.7 billion project through the board. .

“I come back to the term ‘learned helplessness’. The mayor heads the city council. There is no good result where only one person decides everything. You need that critical tension. We need a city council that actually has the expertise and works together through a structure that really puts the mayor to the test and doesn’t let things happen at full speed,” Ferguson said.

Andy Shaw, former president and CEO of the Better Government Association, recently wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, calling for a legal challenge that could pave the way for Ferguson to join the crowded field of candidates lining up to decline. to Lightfoot a second term. .

Ferguson agreed with Andy Shaw that state and local laws that prohibit the Inspector General of Chicago from seeking elective office for at least two years after leaving that office are patently unconstitutional and must be struck down, either through legal action. , or by legislative action.

Even so, he said he has no interest in joining the 2023 mayoral race.

“Elections are about a person. … We have a paradigm problem,” he said.

“Right now what I’ve decided is my best contribution to trying to improve the city is to address the paradigm. We need a reset of our structure of our government. All other cities of the United States do.

Ida M. Morgan