City's ethics reform good step, but no 'silver bullet'

City's ethics reform good step, but no 'silver bullet'
Shutterstock/bribe money

There's no silver bullet when it comes to eradicating political corruption. What's more, fighting it in a city like Chicago might, at times, seem like an all but fruitless task.

Dick Simpson is a former Chicago alderman who pushed for reform measures during his time in the city council. He continues to speak out against corruption as head of UIC's political science department and as the author of a number of reports on the issue.

Simpson believes the city's new ethics ordinance--revamped for the first time in 25 years--is at least a hint that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration is somewhat interested in shaking Chicago's reputation for crooked politics.

Part of the re-written law dumbs down the do's and dont's for elected officials and city employees:

  • no campaigning on city time;
  • no firing someone for not engaging in political work;
  • no gift giving to influence council votes or official city business, etc.

That way, someone can't pull a Blagojevich and argue that he or she didn't know such activities are illegal.

There are also clearly defined punitive measures that the long-anemic Chicago Board of Ethics can now levy against those who violate the new ordinance, thus making discipline much easier.

City employees, aldermen and lobbyists must now take ethics courses. There are clearer descriptions of how pols must adhere to campaign disclosure laws. Whistleblowers are afforded protection and incentives to disclose corruption.  The city's gift ban has also now been capped at $50.

Another report by Emanuel's task force is still due and could likely lead to further legislative ethics reform. But is the recent measure enough?

"There is no silver bullet," Simpson said, but he conceded that the ordinance is a step in the right direction.

Simpson, head of UIC's political science department and the author of several reports on political corruption in Chicago, said the city still needs to draft legislation that deals with problems surrounding conflicts of interest and whom contracts are issued to--two issues that are intrinsically linked and have perpetuated the tradition of Chicago politics being an insider's game.

But legislation alone won't solve the problem, Simpson said.

It's going to take time and a change in the culture.

Simpson said elementary schools need to be teaching civics so people know from an early age about the costs and causes of, as well as the cure for, political corruption.

Oh, and the old guard has to go.

"There needs to be people running on platforms of reform ... right now there are still a lot of old timers [in city government]," Simpson said.

Translation: The city and its residents need to shake the old-school Machine hacks, and aggressively hire and elect new blood. How quickly that will happen or how widespread it will be is anyone's guess.

As for Emanuel?

Simpson said he is pleased with parts of the ordinance and Emanuel's stated dedication to reform, but there is still work to be done.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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