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Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes last stab at ethics reform in wake of Ald. Edward M. Burke’s corruption arrest

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed a seemingly endless string of ethics reforms to turn the page from scandals involving the Hired Truck Program, city hiring and minority contracting that cast a cloud over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

Yet a federal criminal complaint accuses former City Council Finance Committee chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) of shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and a $10,000 campaign contribution to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

And Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) awaits trial on charges that accuse him of looting a 20th Ward fund meant to help children and senior citizens, using $5,000 to pay his daughter’s college tuition, withdrawing $25,000 from ATMs near his preferred casinos and accepting bribes from businessmen who needed favors.

Now, on his way out, Emanuel is making a last stab at cleaning up a City Council that keeps proving it “ain’t ready for reform.”

The mayor’s newest proposed reforms would transfer control over the city’s $100 million-a-year worker’s compensation program from the Finance Committee to the city comptroller. It would no longer be walled off from scrutiny by City Hall Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

During the 1990s, the Chicago Sun-Times had a series of stories detailing conflicts between Burke’s position as finance chairman and his role as a lawyer. The newspaper revealed Burke used a parliamentary maneuver to change the record of four past votes involving his airlines clients dating as far back as seven years.

Since then, Burke has abstained on a host of matters before his committee because he has dozens of law clients that do business with the city or other agencies of local government.

Emanuel’s plan would strengthen what’s known as Rule 14. Committee chairmen who recuse themselves from matters before their committees more than three times in a calendar year would have to resign as chairman or resolve the conflict.

They no longer would be allowed to preside over hearings on a matter, only to then recuse themselves from the final vote without explaining the nature of the conflict. And any conflicts would have to be reported to the city’s Board of Ethics.

The candidates vying to succeed Emanuel are almost universal in demanding that aldermen serve full-time and forego all source of outside income. Emanuel’s plan stops far short of such a ban. Instead, he wants to prohibit aldermen from — as Burke routinely has done — “serving as a legal representative or consultant” in areas such as property tax abatement, bankruptcy or environmental cases in which the city “may have an interest and may join as an adverse party.” Aldermen who get new clients would have to amend their annual ethics statements within 30 days.

Unlike many of those vying to succeed him, Emanuel’s plan would not end what’s known as aldermanic prerogative — the unwritten policy that allows aldermen to control zoning, licensing and permitting in their wards. But aiming to curtail that practice, Emanuel wants to require the City Hall Zoning Committee to vote on “zoning map amendments” no more than six months after they’re introduced. Deferrals could be granted only at the applicant’s request. Any alderman wanting to hold up a permit would have to put the objection in writing and give “substantive reasons” why.

According to federal prosecutors, Burke’s staff worked through contacts in multiple city departments to put a brick on the Burger King project until his demands were met.

Emanuel has ordered city departments to make clear that aldermanic letters of support are “not a pre-condition to any applicant receiving a permit or license that should otherwise be granted based on the substantive determination of the department.”

The mayor’s plan also would prohibit campaign contributions from individuals with “matters involving city resources” before the City Council for six months before and after the request is considered.

Emanuel’s latest ethics gambit might seem as timid as the mayor was about dumping Burke as Finance Committee chairman or wresting worker’s comp from the alderman’s grip until he was charged.

But Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the Emanuel floor leader who inherited the Finance Committee chairmanship from Burke, argued that getting rid of aldermanic prerogative is easier said than done.

“If I’m being asked to vote on a zoning change in the 32nd Ward, I’m gonna go to the [local] alderman and say, ‘What’s the effect of this on your community?’ I don’t know, and they do,” O’Connor said.

“Unless you’re gonna take zoning entirely out of the hands of the council, that deference would always be there. If you take that away, what you do is shift the focus of the decision making from us to the mayor’s office. If you have a mayor who’s unpopular or a mayor people don’t trust — let’s say you have a mayor that is Trumplike — do you want them making your local decisions?”

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