• Alex Nitkin
    JUL 15, 2022

    City Council to prod Lightfoot for release of full watchdog report on botched 2020 Hilco demolition

    A drone video captured footage of the dust debris from a smokestack implosion that blanketed nearby Little Village homes in dust. [Alejandro Reyes/YouTube]

    A City Council committee is poised to send a shot across the bow to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration on Friday by formally calling for the release of a city watchdog’s full report on the lead-up and aftermath of a botched April 2020 demolition that blanketed a nearby neighborhood in dust.

    The City Council Committee on Health and Human Relations is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Friday to take up four non-binding resolutions proposed by various aldermen. They include a resolution (R2022-73) proposed in January by Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22) calling on the city’s law department to “immediately release” a full disciplinary investigation undertaken by then-Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office on the city’s handling of the April 11, 2020 incident.

    Developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners failed to follow environmental control protocols when it toppled the smokestack of the former Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, sending a plume of dust onto the homes and into the lungs of neighbors. The episode was a deep embarrassment for Hilco and for Lightfoot’s administration, and a source of sustained outrage from Rodriguez, who represents the area.  

    Related: Lightfoot halts demolitions citywide after “unacceptable” implosion blankets Little Village in dust  

    “This was a public health disaster,” Rodriguez told The Daily Line when he introduced his resolution in January. “The community deserves restorative justice. I think knowing what happened to the full extent possible is a part of that justice.”  

    In one of the last reports conducted by the inspector general’s office before Ferguson’s term ended on Oct. 15, investigators “found numerous deficiencies with the permitting process, including the Department of Buildings'…failure to follow its own regulations for demolitions involving explosives, and the Chicago Department of Public Health's (CDPH) failure to elevate concerns about the potential environmental implications of the implosion,” according to the language of Rodriguez’s resolution.  

    The inspector’s office wrote in a summary of their report that they recommended “discipline against two Department of Buildings officials, commensurate with the gravity of their violations” as well as “discipline up to and including discharge against one Department of Public Health official.”  

    Ferguson sent the full report to Lightfoot. But the mayor declined to release it to the public, saying city officials were ready to close the chapter after doing a “very thorough deep dive” on lessons learned from the incident and updating city regulations accordingly.  

    Still, the full report promises to unearth information that Rodriguez and his constituents are still missing, he told The Daily Line on Thursday. He said he specifically wants to know why the city only fined Hilco for a fraction of the amount it originally assessed, why no public health officials were fired in line with the investigation’s recommendation and what city leaders have done to prevent similar mishaps in the future.  

    “Members of my community have been very clear about wanting more details from the city, particularly on those three issues,” Rodriguez said Thursday. “That’s what I’m hearing, and that’s what I’m interested in as well.”  

    He said the City Council has already made some progress, including with legislation he spearheaded allowing the city to revoke tax credits from developers who cross certain boundaries. But the council needs more information — even if that means releasing the kinds of information that would typically stay private, he said.  

    Related: Rodriguez seeking ‘framework’ to revoke Hilco’s $19.7M tax credit  

    “I think the nature of the incident does meet the standard for it to be released,” the alderman said.  

    A spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector General declined to comment on Thursday.  

    Ferguson, the city's former inspector general, called it “heartening” that the City Council is pressing the issue on behalf of a “community that has been left without answers, and without a sense of recognition and accountability for what has happened.”  

    “But it’s also, in a sense, heartbreaking that it should require this much pushing,” Ferguson told The Daily Line on Thursday.  

    A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Law wrote in a statement Thursday that “The City may only release investigatory files and reports of the Office of the Inspector General pursuant to Chicago Municipal Code 2-56-110,” which is the city’s ordinance governing the inspector general’s office.  

    But Ferguson noted that the ordinance empowers Lightfoot and the city’s Corporation Counsel to decide whether the full report should be released. Rules preclude the inspector from publicly releasing the results of disciplinary investigations, but other city officials may.  

    “The mayor has the discretion, and that’s the bottom line,” Ferguson said. “But she and the administration should explain what it is about this matter that does not render it the right circumstances for release — especially a matter that has so obviously affected a whole community, and for which whole communities are interested in having released.”  

    The health and human relations committee is also scheduled to consider the following other resolutions during its meeting on Friday:  

    R2022-589 — A resolution by committee chair Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6) calling for a hearing on the “HIV crisis in African American communities.” He invited to speak at the hearing Keith Green, executive director of the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus; Christopher Balthazar, director of the Taskforce Prevention & Community Services; Ken Burnett, CEO of Christian Community Health Centers; and Vanessa Smith, director of the South Side Help Center.  

    R2021-920 — A resolution from Ald. Maria Hadden (49) calling on the U.S. government to “cease spending federal tax dollars on nuclear weapons, embrace United Nations Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and make global nuclear disarmament main focus of national security policy.” David Combs, acting campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, will testify on the resolution in committee on Friday, according to a news release.  

    R2022-75 — A resolution from Ald. Ed Burke (14) calling on Gov. JB Pritzker to grant a posthumous pardon to Ira Hayes. Hayes was one of the six U.S. Marines who was photographed raising the American flag over Iwo Jima in 1945 and later toured the country with the military to raise war bonds. But he was subsequently arrested and jailed multiple times by Chicago police for “public drunkenness,” according to the language of Burke’s resolution. 

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