That reform bullshit

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Not long ago I ran into a politician who was still amazed at a story a constituent had just related. The constituent arrived for a meeting with officials in another arm of government to discuss some contracting work, but as soon as he sat down he was immediately interrogated about why he had donated $500 to a politician who’s aiming to oust their boss from office.

The politician I was talking with shook his head. “I mean, the first question?” the politician said. “That’s really crude.”

It’s true—more-skilled politicians would at least wait until the third or fourth question. But given the high-anxiety times we live in, it’s understandable that deal makers and power brokers occasionally forget their manners.

We all know the economy is lousy, which makes for busted budgets and--worse--constituents who want something to show for their taxes.

And thanks to Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris, it’s a good time to be a reformer, or at least to tell the public that you’re not Rod Blagojevich or Roland Burris, and that you’re fiercely opposed to going to prison. Mike Quigley parlayed his independence on the county board into a congressional primary victory last week; county board president Todd Stroger is panicked enough about his reelection chances to call reporters and ask them for interviews; there’s talk in Springfield of strengthening Freedom of Information laws; and members of the City Council are making ever louder demands for transparency about things like the TIF program and the mayor’s stimulus requests.

As independent-minded 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore put it: “We want to strike while the iron’s hot.”

Moore introduced the latest reform proposal Monday afternoon when he announced that he and several allies would be calling for a more encompassing, more independent, and better-funded inspector general’s office. Moore called a press conference for 10:30 Tuesday morning to announce details.

But Tuesday morning showed it’s still not so easy to execute this reform thing in Mayor Daley’s Chicago—or figure out just who’s in on it.

When I arrived at 10:30 for the press conference, next to the elevators on the second floor of City Hall, TV crews were packing up to move upstairs, where Mayor Daley was holding his own press conference with Desmond Tutu.

I found Moore and his ally Ric Munoz chatting in a hallway around the corner. They said their press conference was on hold. “We can’t compete with the archbishop,” Moore explained.

Alderman Ray Colon walked up, handshakes were exchanged, and Moore explained that they had to wait until the mayor and the Nobel Prize winner were finished. The same thing happened when aldermen Brendan Reilly and Bob Fioretti tracked them down. Likewise with Manny Flores and Scott Waguespack.

As the pack moved around the corner they ran into Toni Preckwinkle. “Aren’t there any girls in on this?” she wondered.

“You’re a girl,” Munoz noted.

Several aldermen told Moore they were going to have to leave soon for other meetings. He begged for patience.

Sandi Jackson ran up and gave Moore a hug. “I have to go,” she said, “but I’m right with you on this!”

“I know,” Moore said. “I know.”

Finally, after nearly an hour--once the mayor had finished dodging questions and the archbishop had “absolved” reporters of their negative ways--camera crews started to trickle back down to the second floor.

With six aldermen standing behind him, Moore stepped up to the podium and began his remarks: “Over the last several years, we have witnessed a never-ending parade of scandals at all levels of government, which has served to fuel the deep public cynicism about the honesty and integrity of those elected to public service . . . ”

As a mayoral aide listened and took notes nearby, Moore went on to outline the ordinance [PDF] they were proposing: it would require that the mayor pick the inspector general from a list of finalists created by an “independent” panel of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, and nonprofit watchdogs; extend the IG’s term from four to six years; increase the office’s budget to at least 0.15 percent of the total city budget (it’s currently at $5.9 million, or about 0.1 percent); and, most important, give the office the authority to investigate wrongdoing by aldermen. That’s currently beyond its scope because of fears that the IG, a mayoral appointee, could launch investigations of mayoral opponents for political reasons.

The aldermen took a few questions--Moore said an expanded IG’s office would uncover enough waste to offset the cost, and Pat Dowell said it would be able to go after “bigger fruit” than the rank-and-file city workers who’ve been its most frequent targets.

As the press conference was wrapping up, 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, in a long black jacket and black fedora, appeared from down the hall and wobbled toward the elevators. Stone, a fierce critic of the inspector general’s office, looked over at the group and gave it a thumbs down. “Boo!” he called out. “You’re a bunch of stupid dummies!”

I stepped into the elevator with him, and as we headed down I asked if he was really worried that the IG’s office could be used to carry out mayoral vendettas--or did he just have his own vendetta against the office? Wouldn’t this proposal at least make it more difficult?

“Come on--they’re all under somebody’s thumb!” he growled.

He stepped out of the elevator into the first-floor lobby. “Let me tell you something,” he said, and launched into a long, angry tirade about how he believed the inspector general had investigated one of his precinct workers to imperil his 2008 bid to remain 50th Ward Democratic committeeman. If so, it worked: Stone lost a bitter race to his onetime ally Ira Silverstein after the state senator got a rare endorsement from the mayor.

“It’s bullshit!” Stone declared. “And these guys think they’re going to take the office out of the mayor’s hands and make it independent? Who do you think told [the IG] to go after me before an election? Not anyone in the City Council! And you’re going to tell me that wasn’t political? It’s bullshit!”

Stone saw someone he knew across the lobby. “Hi Mike,” he called out, friendly as could be. Then he turned back to me: “It’s bullshit! Bullshit! And anybody who votes for this is stupid!”

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