A closer look at Rahm Emanuel’s record of reform

Rahm Emanuel has portrayed himself as Chicago’s reform mayor.  As a candidate in 2011 he promised to “turn the page and bring a new era of transparency, accountability and end business as usual in city government.”

How does Emanuel’s record stack up?

Ethics.  On his first day in office, Emanuel issued a series of executive orders, barring political considerations in political hiring, limiting lobbying by former city officials and banning political donations to the mayor by city contractors or employees, among other things.  He established an Ethics Reform Task Force and, over the next couple of years, passed two ordinances containing several of its recommendations, some in watered-down form.

And finally, in June, he convinced a judge to release the city from the 42-year-old Shakman decree barring patronage hiring and to dismiss a federal hiring monitor.  To get there, Emanuel had to repair his relationship with Inspector General Joe Ferguson.  Last year, going against a campaign promise to allow the IG’s office unimpeded access to city documents, Emanuel went to the Illinois Supreme Court to limit Ferguson’s subpoena power.

Not till this year did the mayor start carrying out his promises to expand the IG’s authority and stabilize the office’s budget.

Meanwhile, with a vast campaign fundraising operation, Emanuel has exploited a “pretty sizeable loophole” in his own executive order to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from employees of city contractors.

Most recently, International Business Times reported that Emanuel has accepted $600,000 from executives of firms that manage city pension funds, in possible violation not only of the mayor’s executive order but of federal rules.  Progressive alderman have called for investigations by the Securities Exchange Commission, the IG and the city comptroller.

And when it came time to circulate petitions to get on the ballot, Emanuel turned to patronage workers from House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political operation.

TIF reform.  In his first year, Emanuel appointed a TIF Reform Task Force, and accepted its report with great fanfare.  Then he put it on the shelf.

One of the task force’s recommendations has been implemented: TIFs have been included in the city budget.  Other recommendations have been ignored, including setting performance metrics by which to hold developers accountable, creating an oversight body that could shut down nonperforming TIF districts and making annual audits of TIFs public.

Emanuel has put a lot of TIF information online.  But at the same time the city has stopped listing estimated costs for specific projects in the annual reports for TIF districts, instead offering only a lump sum labeled “restricted for future redevelopment project costs.”

So a taxpayer has no way of knowing what spending is planned for that TIF — or how accurate the report is on the TIF’s surplus.  It’s a huge step backward for transparency.

Emanuel has shut down a dozen TIFs in outlying areas.  But he’s kept open downtown districts like the LaSalle Central TIF, which last year diverted $13.75 million in property-tax revenues from schools and other government bodies in order to fight blight in the financial district — with subsidies to needy corporations like United Airlines and Miller-Coors.

And with multimillion-dollar subsidies for luxury developments in the North Loop and near McCormick Place, Emanuel can’t be said to have reined in TIF abuse.

Financial reform.  Emanuel claims to be getting a handle on the city’s financial mess.  Unfortunately this involves costly refinancing deals pushing debt far into the future and using borrowing to pay for operating costs.

Meanwhile he’s pushing new financial innovations — like the Infrastructure Trust, which tried to finance energy efficiency lighting in schools that had been closed, or “social impact bonds,” which will double the cost of expanding of early education.

Police reform.  Last year Emanuel issued a somewhat perfunctory apology for the torture of suspects by Chicago police under Cmdr. Jon Burge, promising “a new way of actually doing business.” He has yet to embrace the proposal for a fund to provide counseling, health care and job training for Burge victims, though he recently backed off his previous opposition.

It’s far from clear the city is doing all it could to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.  The Independent Police Review Authority still sustains very few misconduct complaints, said Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project.  He’s concerned about the growing presence of retired police officers and federal agents in the ranks of IPRA, which was set up to be an independent civilian agency.

Emanuel hasn’t provided strong leadership for greater police accountability.  When city attorneys moved to vacate a 2012 ruling that a departmental “code of silence” encouraged an off-duty officer to brutally beat a female bartender, he backed them up.

And when Cmdr. Glenn Evans was indicted this summer for aggravated battery and official misconduct, Emanuel spoke up to defend the department for promoting Evans — despite his long record of excessive-force complaints, several of which resulted in legal settlements costing the city tens of thousands of dollars.

School reform.  In Chicago, school reform once meant empowering local school communities to improve their schools — an approach that, over the years, has worked far better than a long series of top-down measures.  The new school reform seems to mean closing neighborhood schools and opening charters.

There’s no evidence charters do better, but at least they don’t have those pesky local school councils.  On the other hand, they’ve opened a whole new avenue for influence peddling.

UNO Charter Schools, the city’s largest charter chain, has been through several leadership changes as it deals with the effects of insider-dealing charges, including a charges filed by the SEC. UNO’s former CEO, Juan Rangel, co-chaired Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign.

Meanwhile Concept Schools, part of a national network of charter operators linked to a secretive Turkish cult, is under investigation by the FBI, apparently for spreading federal funds around to favored contractors.  Concept has three schools in Chicago; the opening of a fourth school in Chatham was postponed by CPS this summer.

When your reforms are getting negative attention from the SEC and FBI, perhaps you need another word to describe them.

 

 

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