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In December the City Council's police and fire committee began a crucial debate over how to improve the police board, the body of mayoral appointees that makes the final decisions—behind closed doors—on whether to fire officers found guilty of serious misconduct. But no action was taken then because Alderman Isaac Carothers, the committee chairman and a key ally of Mayor Daley's, wanted more time to think about it.
Four months later Carothers is on his way to prison and the police board discussion has been shelved while aldermen await further orders from the mayor.
"Some kind of reform probably would have happened if Ike had stayed around another month," says Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti.
Last fall the nonprofit Chicago Justice Project issued a report that found that board members frequently miss meetings and often decline to oust troubled cops. Even worse, the board releases no written explanations for its decisions. Fioretti responded to the findings by sponsoring an ordinance that would require board members to show up for their own meetings, post their decisions online, and hold occasional hearings on police department policies.
Carothers held it up. “There’s an awful lot here in this ordinance that you are asking for that certainly needs some deliberation,” he said in December.
But he wasn’t the only one concerned about some of the proposals—in fact, Ike rarely acted without a cue from the Daley administration. In this case, city corporation counsel Mara Georges, who represented the administration in negotiations on the ordinance, opposed the provisions requiring attendance and opening the door to public hearings.
“I think sometimes the administration takes both sides, and on this one they’ve taken the approach that they’re for some reform but not all of it,” Fioretti told me. He said it was essential to move the legislation forward. “We need to know how these decisions are made, not only for our communities but for our police officers.”
But in the middle of talks on the proposals, Carothers pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion. He was forced to quit his job as alderman.
“Alderman Carothers's resignation put a temporary hold on these efforts,” Georges’s spokeswoman, Jenny Hoyle, told me.
Why? you might ask. Can't the proposal move forward without Carothers?
Apparently not—at least not yet. That's because the administration hasn’t yet decided which alderman it wants to replace Carothers as the police and fire committee chair—and thus as the person who will carry out its wishes in the council.
Let me back up a second. Under the City Council’s rules of order (click here for a PDF), aldermen are supposed to decide who sits on which committee and who chairs it. “The membership of Aldermen on standing committees, and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of such committees, shall be determined by the City Council by resolution duly adopted.”
The aldermen do write and vote on resolutions about these things. But several have told me that the actual selections are made beforehand by Daley.
The result, in this case, is that the Ike-less police and fire committee hasn't done much in the last few weeks.
At its January 12 meeting police detectives were pressed to reopen the 70-year-old case of a murdered cohort of Al Capone’s because alderman Ed Burke found it interesting. He’s the council’s most powerful member and an author of a couple books on Chicago history.
(If Burke is interested, there are plenty of other unsolved murder cases to look into: the Chicago Police Department typically clears fewer than half the hundreds of murders committed in the city each year. But I digress.)
When the committee met again last week, it had one item on its agenda: approving the donation of a used fire truck to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was able to accomplish this task in less than ten minutes.
That meeting was led by 11th Ward alderman James Balcer. “I’m the acting chairman, the vice chairman, whatever you want to call it,” he told me. But he said he didn’t know if he’d be leading the committee permanently: “It’s the mayor’s decision.”
Balcer added that he didn’t know when that decision might be made, but in the meantime “I just want to keep things moving along.”
The police board reform ordinance isn’t one of these things.
“I haven’t seen it,” Balcer said.
What? The vice chairman doesn't know anything about the police board ordinance? The ordinance that came before the committee in December?
“If I have seen it I don’t remember it."
It was kind of a big deal ...
"If you see it let me know—I’ll be happy to look at it.”
Well in that case, maybe I can actually help. Despite not being an alderman, I was able to ask around and get copies of the proposal by Alderman Fioretti and the counter-proposal by the city's law department. Here are the PDFs: