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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 12:01 am

Growl, woof, woof

Aldermen ponder getting a watchdog

Ward 6 Alderman Cory Jobe
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

 

Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe wants a watchdog for city hall.

Jobe has proposed hiring an inspector general at a cost of as much as $400,000 per year, but he says details are up for discussion.

“I think we can probably do this for $250,000,” Jobe says. “Look at all the money we’re spending on lawsuits.”

Jobe’s idea, which he says is more concept that concrete, appears to have support from at least two colleagues on the council, Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards and Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner. Jobe says that Ward 10 Ald. Tim Griffin, who could not be reached for comment, is also interested.

“This office would be a great vehicle to assist in identifying and investigating mismanagement, waste and corruption in city government,” Turner wrote in an email.

The city’s last inspector general, who moved on to other duties more than a decade ago, says amen.

“The concept itself, what’s wrong with it?” asks Jim Cimarossa, a former assistant police chief who served as the city’s inspector general under former mayor Karen Hasara. “The bad news is what’s going to make us better.”

Cimarossa’s tenure as inspector general was brief. He recalls Hasara giving him the job in response to police department scandals that included lax procedures in the evidence room and a 1999 tavern fight involving off-duty officers. He lasted about two years before he took on homeland security duties after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and no one took his place.

Much of his time as inspector general was spent looking into alleged wrongdoing in the police department, Cimarossa recalls, but he also checked out complaints involving such matters as residency violations by employees of other departments. Although he retained the title of assistant police chief, Cimarossa said that inspector general duties consumed most of his time before he took on other tasks.

Jobe’s call for an inspector general comes as the city defends a lawsuit filed by Calvin Christian III, who sued after police shredded internal affairs files that he had requested under the state Freedom of Information Act. The city has admitted that at least one file of dozens requested by Christian was improperly destroyed, but aldermen have said they’re not keen on settling the case.

Edwards said that he believes the city council would be more receptive to settling Christian’s lawsuit if there were an independent investigator who could determine exactly what happened in the shredding matter and make a report to the city council. As it stands now, Edwards said, the council has no way other than a lawsuit to hold officials accountable and learn the truth.

“It’s tragic that we’re spending this kind of money to get the truth when there’s no other mechanism to get the truth,” Edwards said.

Cimarossa says that he believes the shredding would never have happened if the city had an inspector general. He pointed out that the plan to shred was well known within the police department. Someone, he said, would likely have alerted an inspector general had one existed before documents were destroyed.

“Could this have been prevented?” Cimarossa said. “Absolutely, the answer is yes.”

Mayor Mike Houston has said that the facts in the shredding incident will be known when Illinois State Police complete an investigation. But Edwards noted that a 2005 state police report on alleged wrongdoing within the city police department has never been made public.

“Last time we did this, we never got to see the report,” Edwards said. “That was a joke.”

Rather than spend $400,000 on a full-time inspector general, Edwards suggested putting a law firm on retainer.

“I think that’s the discussion we’re having right now,” Edwards said. “We sure don’t want to hire someone who sits around.”

Cimarossa said that he believes that an inspector general could work for the city, but Jobe says that the position should be as independent of city government as possible. Cimarossa also said that an inspector general should report to both the mayor and the city council. Jobe says an inspector general should work for the council.

Jobe said he thinks that an inspector general could be effective without power of subpoena that would compel employees to speak and provide pertinent records, but he acknowledged that he hasn’t worked out details. He said he arrived at the $400,000 price tag after speaking with a consultant who based the figure on a full-time inspector general with at least one assistant.

“I don’t know all the answers,” Jobe said. “I think we should really discuss this. … I think we throw everything on the table. We’ve got to regain the public’s trust.”

Houston is pushing a whistleblower ordinance that calls on employees to expose wrongdoing in city government without fear of retaliation, but the mayor acknowledges that city workers who speak up are already protected by state law.

“This is not designed to replace an inspector general,” Houston said. “In terms of an inspector general, I think that’s something we should talk about and see if that is something that could be done without necessarily spending $400,000 a year to do it.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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