• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 08, 2021

    Departments’ compliance with watchdog recommendations has ‘fallen off a cliff,’ Ferguson says

    Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson addresses the City Council during a budget hearing Thursday evening. [Erin Hegarty/The Daily Line]

    Chicago departments have been slow or worse at fixing issues exposed by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office, threatening to put the watchdog’s work to waste, he warned aldermen during a Thursday evening budget hearing.

    That was just one in a series of alarms Ferguson sounded as he prepares to head for the exits next week after 12 years sniffing out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement among city employees and officials.

    Ferguson called on the City Council to lend more legitimacy to his office’s work. He blasted the Chicago Police Department’s shambolic recordkeeping and said Mayor Lori Lightfoot has “not kept” her promise to see through an overhaul of the department’s controversial gang database. And he said the unknown status of the city’s search for a new head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability “should worry all of us.”

    The inspector kicked off his remarks to the council on Thursday by citing “three trends — one positive, and two of concern.” On the positive side, he said public knowledge and “interest” in inspector’s office audits and investigations is “markedly growing, and that work is being put to increasingly sophisticated and dynamic use by civil society.”

    But the information is not being put to use by the agencies being targeted by the audits, he added.

    Recommendations for improvements “are being met with agreement as much as ever, but the follow-through on commitments to implement those recommendations has, frankly, fallen off a cliff,” Ferguson said. “This may in part be the product of stresses of the lingering pandemic on government operations, but appears more so to be the product of there being no consequence at all to failing to execute on promises made in response to [inspector’s] recommendations.”

    “We know from inquiries from community stakeholders that this trend is not going unnoticed,” he added.

    Ald. Michele Smith (43), who chairs the City Council Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, asked whether the lack of follow-through could be blamed on a “budgetary problem” where departments lack enough resources to put recommended changes in place. But Ferguson said he does not “expect recommendations necessarily to be adopted” to their fullest potential.

    “What I’m pointing out is promises and commitments made to follow certain recommendations, and then nothing being done,” he said.

    Ald. Carrie Austin (34) noted that Ferguson’s hands are partially tied on fixing department deficiencies, because “your recommendation is just that — a recommendation.”

    “It is the department’s decision,” Austin said, homing in on recommendations for suspending employees who have violated city rules. “If you give them 25 days, it is up to the department to say, ‘I’ll give them 10 days,’ or whatever the case may be.”

    Ferguson said his office plans to expand its public database to “include a recommendation tracker…so that you will more easily be able to perform the important role of legislative oversight.”

    Slackening legislative oversight was the second “trend of concern” the inspector aired, saying “there have been fewer briefings” in the City Council to review inspector general reports “as compared to prior years.” Ferguson aired the issue again later in the hearing, after Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) asked him to grade the City Council on “how we have done in implementing your suggestions and creating a more efficient and streamlined and better Chicago government.”

    Ferguson replied that his office publishes a wide breadth of reports pertaining to “a vast number” of the council’s 19 committees, which could “make better use of the work of the office” by holding more hearings on its findings.

    “To have a specialized subject matter committee report on a specialized [inspector general] topic that relates to a particular department, such that the department’s only appearance before the council is not just their budget hearing…that’s how we get that dynamic going where legislative oversight really has traction,” Ferguson said.

    Ferguson waded through a wide range of other topics throughout the more than two-hour hearing, including by emphatically agreeing with aldermen who told Department of Streets and Sanitation officials on Tuesday that tree trimming workers should switch to a “grid system” of systematic work instead of simply responding to complaints.

    Related: Aldermen decry city’s year-long tree trimming backlog: ‘I can't say it enough — forestry, forestry, forestry’

    The inspector’s office published a report in 2019 arguing that switching to a grid system would give the city a “better, stronger urban forest,” Ferguson said Thursday.

    “It would cost us less, with less consequences coming from storms, better water management with lesser climate consequences that affect our more disadvantaged parts of the city,” he said.

    He also blasted the Chicago Police Department’s record keeping, saying it often forces the inspector’s office to “figure out how to reinvent the wheel” when putting together information on police staffing, casework or other processes.

    “The record management system is impeding the ability of officers to draw upon historical records of the people they’re investigating, …affecting clearance rates and affecting the integrity of the criminal justice system,” Ferguson said. “Cases have to get dismissed if we don’t know where our own records are.”

    The inspector’s office has published multiple reports — most recently last month — on police recordkeeping, and Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg said Thursday that she intends to keep a spotlight focused on the topic next year.

    Ferguson announced in July that he will not seek a fourth term atop the office, pegging Oct. 15 as his last day on the job. But he emphasized on Thursday that he is “not retiring.”

    Related: Ferguson to step down in October after 12 years as city’s top watchdog

    Asked by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25) about his “top priorities” for “continuity” of the office after his departure, Ferguson pointed to the Chicago Police Department’s long-promised overhaul of its controversial gang database. Following multiple reports by the inspector’s office poking holes in the database, the department has not set a deadline for switching to a new system.

    Related: Aldermen put CPD on defensive over gang database overhaul: ‘This is a wheel we need to destroy’ 

    “It’s been two-and-a-half years, and promises made, and promises not kept,” Ferguson said. “We’re still utilizing a system that we know…is just not accurate and hangs over the lives of Chicagoans, over 96 percent of them who are Black and brown. We need to clean that up.”

    Finally, Ferguson flagged the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which has been without a permanent leader since Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts stepped down in May. Interim Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten, who has led the office ever since, told aldermen during a budget hearing last week that she hopes to be confirmed in the role.

    Related: COPA clears backlog of cases left by predecessor agency, plans to expand transparency and outreach

    But Ferguson said Thursday that a “search was initiated” for a new head of the office in July, “two days before” the effective date of an ordinance (SO2019-4132) that will create a civilian commission to oversee the Chicago Police Department. The commission would be empowered to appoint a leader of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

    Related: City Council approves long-sought civilian oversight of CPD, but supporters say there is still work ‘to be done’

    “We are now three months past that law, [and] the law that is in effect right now is not what’s being done,” Ferguson said. “What is being done, I don’t think anybody really knows. That should worry you and should worry all of us.”

    Lightfoot and the City Council last month compiled a search committee to find a permanent successor for Ferguson. Smith has asked him to appoint an acting head of the office until the search committee and the mayor land on a choice.

    Related: Former Rahm policy chief, former Lisa Madigan deputy on tap for IG search committee

    Ferguson said if the committee finds “somebody who has actually been battle-tested in the context of oversight work…in the city itself, you have your measure of what you’re looking for. That is available.”

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