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Thursday, June 5, 2014 12:01 am

Springfield considers inspector general

City council takes first step

 Having an inspector general isn’t necessarily a badge of honor. Consider governmental entities in Illinois that have them.

Cook County has two, one for the circuit clerk and the other for the rest of county government. The state of Illinois has five. Chicago has four, with another who oversees city colleges. And, judging by a stream of indictments that never seems to end, corruption flourishes.

There’s no one-stop-shop to figure out which cities and counties employ inspectors general, but the Illinois Chapter of the Association of Inspectors General includes a dozen offices, according to the organization’s website. How the chapter sustains itself isn’t clear, given that the organization hasn’t filed required public financial reports for three consecutive years, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to revoke its tax-exempt status. Only, as they say, in Illinois.

It’s a safe bet, however, that Springfield is now among the smallest, if not the smallest, governmental body in the state to establish an inspector general. How long an inspector general will remain isn’t certain.

Under terms of a $79,000 contract approved Tuesday by the city council, the Chicago firm of Hillard Heintze, which specializes in security consulting, will develop a plan for an inspector general’s office and serve as the city’s inspector general until the council approves a permanent arrangement. The 8-2 vote is veto-proof, but there is no guarantee that the council will take the second step and install a permanent inspector general’s office.

Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe, who has pushed the idea, has said that an inspector general’s office could cost as much as $400,000, which has resulted in sticker shock. At Tuesday’s meeting, Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, who voted no, questioned costs. Aldermen, he said, can act as watchdogs, and he noted that eight media organizations were present at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think for a medium-sized city like Springfield is right now, we have to go the grassroots, low-budget approach,” McMenamin said. “Each alderman can be a mini-IG. … We’ve got really alert and effective media in the city of Springfield.”

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner, however, said that concerns about waste and corruption shouldn’t be addressed in a “haphazard” fashion.

Just what an inspector general would cost isn’t clear, but Jobe said that any inspector general’s office would have to be funded without revenue increases.

“We’re going to have to go back and lobby the mayor and figure out a way to finance this,” Jobe said in an interview.

The city already has an inspector general, but only on paper, and the ordinance authorizing the unfilled position would likely have to be changed to establish the sort of independent oversight the council has discussed. The inspector general established by ordinance is hired and fired by the mayor, and the council doesn’t have the power to hire or fire any municipal employees.

Aldermen on Tuesday discussed putting the position under either the city treasurer or city clerk, who have the authority to hire and fire, but did not talk about what might happen if someone in one of those offices was accused of wrongdoing and came under scrutiny. Several aldermen said they favored establishing a contract with an entity outside city government.

“I think it’s a no-brainer: It (the inspector general’s office) has to be external,” said Ward 9 Ald. Steve Dove.

Dove voted no, saying that he didn’t want to spend $79,000 when the city code prevents an inspector general from working outside the mayor’s purview.

“We all know it’s a good idea,” Dove said. “Let’s get everything straightened out before we railroad something through and realize there’s nothing we can do to change it.”

Council coordinator Joe Davis suggested that the city code could be changed and that the council could establish a contractual inspector general, but corporation counsel Todd Greenburg said he doesn’t believe that would be legal.

The question of autonomy has proven sticky elsewhere. The Illinois Supreme Court last year unanimously ruled that Chicago’s inspector general, who has subpoena power, doesn’t have the authority to go to court to enforce subpoenas if documents aren’t forthcoming. The inspector general had demanded documents in a probe of a no-bid contract given to a former mayoral employee, but the mayor refused, and the state’s highest court ruled that going to court to get documents was a job for the corporation counsel, who answers to the mayor.

Aldermen don’t have time to write a plan for an inspector general’s office, Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards told his colleagues, and so the city needs hired help.

“We’re going to have to have someone lead us through this,” Edwards said. “Consultants cost money.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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