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It might be tempting to brush off a lawsuit filed recently against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, as politically motivated.
Two longtime critics of City Hall accuse Emanuel and Burke of violating Illinois law and the state and U.S. constitutions. The alleged infraction? Allowing Burke, through the City Council Finance Committee he chairs, to administer the city’s workers’ compensation program. The suit argues that the program, which costs taxpayers at least $100 million per year, according to a 2016 inspector general report, should be run by a City Hall agency, human resources professionals or the Law Department.
The suit says the current arrangement — which is spelled out in the Chicago Municipal Code — is unconstitutional because it assigns executive functions to the legislative branch. We’ll leave that question to the courts. There’s zero doubt, however, that vesting complete control of the workers’ comp fund in a single committee chair, shielded from oversight, is a terrible idea.
Burke’s role as the gatekeeper of workers’ comp benefits for the entire city of Chicago invites cynicism, and rightfully so. The lawsuit alleges that Burke, who has chaired the finance committee for 33 of the last 35 years, leverages his position to load up his staff with patronage workers. The role also allows him to dole out favors as he determines the outcomes of hundreds of cases of city workers who claim they were injured on the job.
The lawsuit says jobs and disability benefits are awarded to precinct captains and others who help secure votes for Burke and candidates he supports. It says Emanuel has relinquished control of the workers’ comp fund to Burke because Burke helps round up City Council votes for measures pushed by the mayor. We’d like to see data to back up those claims, but that’s the point. Everything ends at Burke.
We have long argued, along with a few members of the City Council, that city Inspector General Joe Ferguson should have the authority to audit the program. Someone other than Burke and his staff should be reviewing cases and claims that involve public workers and taxpayer money.
But Burke, assisted by weak-kneed aldermen, has managed to wall off his committee from the purview of Ferguson’s office. The City Council in 2016 helped him by gutting an ordinance that would have given Ferguson the authority to examine Burke’s books. This was after many aldermen claimed to be in favor of it a year earlier, during election season. Then they flipped.
It was outrageous then and it’s outrageous now.
By comparison, Cook County’s workers’ comp committee, chaired by County Board member Tim Schneider, R-Bartlett, reviews and signs off on decisions that are made by experts in the county’s risk management department and the state’s attorney’s office. Schneider doesn’t have a staff. He isn’t negotiating compensation decisions. And the committee and its cases are open to the scrutiny of the county inspector general and the public. Cases that require a settlement eventually come to the full County Board for approval.
At the state level, it’s similar. Lawmakers who head up House and Senate committees on public health or transportation or education don’t actually administer programs in those subject areas. The agency heads and staff who work for the state of Illinois do.
The federal lawsuit filed by Jay Stone and Patrick McDonough — two activists with a long history of fighting City Hall — asks a judge to order the city to assign the workers’ comp program to the executive branch and to grant the inspector general permission to conduct an audit and claims review and to release the results to the public. For now, City Hall isn’t commenting.
We’re happy the plaintiffs are calling attention to an issue Chicago’s elected officials have worked very hard to duck.
Emanuel and every candidate on the ballot in 2019 should be on the hot seat regarding this question: Why should an elected alderman continue to act as a program administrator, in the dark, on an issue as expensive and important as workers’ comp? And why should he (or anyone) operate outside the watchful eye of an inspector general?
It’s a blot on Chicago government that is long overdue for a fix. Who will have the guts to do it?