Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chicago Tribune Editorial | Toward an Honest City Hall


Chicago Tribune Editorial
March 22, 2007

Wednesday's agreement on a new protocol for enforcing rules against illicit patronage hiring and promotion at City Hall is an upbeat chapter in a decades-long legal drama. We could fill this page and many others with all of the background.

Or we could cut to the chase scene: No longer should federal prosecutors and FBI agents have to be the de facto enforcers of Shakman-decree rules and a host of laws meant to guarantee fairness in city employment. Instead, as of May 31 (barring the unexpected), that job will fall to the city's inspector general.

That makes sense, as this page argued last summer after the corruption convictions of four former City Hall officials. The current inspector general, former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, may not relish the idea of adding oversight of hiring to his anti-corruption duties. But with a beefed-up staff of 40 investigators, an aggressive focus on more substantial cases and protocols for seeing that wrongdoers get punished, his team is ideally equipped to do what the city administration hasn't: eradicate the widely held assumption that when the city hires or promotes, the fix is in.

Owing to City Hall's serial failures to halt illegal employment practices, a federal monitor is now responsible for city hiring--and also for probing alleged violations. She'll continue to oversee the former for two years, but investigation and enforcement now will shift to the IG.

It's crucial that future oversight not drift back to any of the politicized city departments that report to the mayor. Neither Mayor Richard Daley nor his successors should be monitoring their own compliance with rules intended to guarantee fairness to job applicants and employees seeking promotion.

Mayors, of course, appoint inspectors general, so the potential for mischief remains. But barring a permanent federal takeover of employment at Streets and San, the IG is likeliest to police employment with genuine independence. The inspector general has a four-year term, works from office space outside City Hall--and can only be fired "for cause" by a majority vote of the City Council. After years of relative inaction, the office is building a no-nonsense reputation: Last week, for the first time, federal criminal charges were brought on the basis of a joint IG-federal investigation, as six defendants were charged with accepting bribes to subvert building-safety rules.

Prior to Wednesday, Daley had long fought to void Shakman regulation of patronage hiring. Now he has agreed to issue an executive order intended to keep politics out of personnel decisions. The IG's job is to make that stick.

The settlement creates a $12 million fund for people who allege that they were victimized by the unfairness that has tarred City Hall. And the IG's office likely will need more staff if it's to handle all future employment complaints on top of its current busy workload.

Chicago will be a long time paying for the shabby practices that cheated many good people out of jobs or promotions they deserved. The hope here is that Wednesday's settlement keeps that from occurring again.

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