By William S. Bike
Chicago is supposed to have a chief administrative officer—a city manager to oversee all the departments and agencies of City government. Yet it has not had one since Mayor Jane Byrne appointed one 40 years ago.
The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently attempted to remind Mayor Lori Lightfoot to appoint a chief administrative officer, as required by Municipal Code of Chicago statute 2-4-020. Lightfoot strongly rebuffed the suggestion.
The OIG recently released an advisory concerning interdepartmental coordination in City government. The office noted, “the advisory was prompted by OIG’s observations across multiple inquiries from 2019 to 2022 of poor coordination among different City departments, and resulting losses of efficiency and effectiveness in City services.”
In contacting Mayor Lightfoot, the OIG suggested that the “poor coordination” could be addressed by Lightfoot appointing a chief administrative officer.
“The Municipal Code of Chicago requires the mayor to appoint an administrative officer for City Council confirmation, and enumerates coordination among City departments among the duties of that officer,” the OIG reported.
In responding for Lightfoot, Sybil Madison, Lightfoot’s chief of staff, noted the mayor’s staff “strongly dispute your [OIG’s] observation that a lack of adequate communication and coordination among City departments has been a common or widespread problem at the root of various adverse events and inefficiencies” across 11 recent inquiries summarized by OIG.
Lightfoot through Madison also expressed the view that “it is questionable” whether the provision of MCC § 2-4-020 that the “mayor shall appoint, with the consent of the city council, an officer to be known as the mayor’s administrative officer” establishes a legal obligation for the mayor.
Archaic and simplistic?
Further, Madison asserted the Lightfoot administration has achieved coordination “very effectively” under the mayor’s own “organizational approach,” and characterized the structure prescribed by the MCC as “archaic and overly simplistic.”
Joe Ferguson, a former Chicago inspector general and founder of (re)Chicago, an organization devoted to addressing flaws in the City’s governance structure, does not find the MCC “questionable” at all on the topic of a chief administrative officer/city manager.
Ferguson noted a home rule commission that looked at reforming City government in the early 1950s suggested a chief administrative officer.
“One of the recommendations that the commission made is that, since mayors are essentially political actors, the City would work best if its day-to-day operations would be run by a chief administrative officer, and that was passed into law” in 1954, Ferguson explained.
“The mayor is mandated—re-
quired—to submit to the City Council a nominee for the position of administrative officer for the City,” Ferguson continued. “And that person should have some baseline qualifications, which include education and experience in running large governmental organizations. And the duties and responsibilities of that person include having all the departments and agencies of the City report to that person.”
When Ferguson was inspector general, he noted that, “I went to aldermen and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this position?’ Nobody knew of it. It’s a mandatory position, but nobody knew.”
“The law of the City of Chicago requires that the mayor appoint an administrative officer for confirmation by the City Council,” said Deborah Witzburg, the current City of Chicago inspector general.
“Among that person’s statutory duties is to ensure coordination among City departments,” she continued. “As we’ve seen time and again in OIG’s recent inquiries, better interdepartmental coordination would result in more effective, efficient City services.
“We urge the appointment and confirmation of an administrative officer both in pursuit of that goal and because the law plainly requires it,” Witzburg said. “Compliance with the law is not optional, even—especially—for City Hall.”
The OIG noted the chief administrative officer is charged with establishing reporting procedures and requiring the departments and agencies he or she oversees to submit progress reports, resulting in more continuous oversight and examination of City departments and agencies.
Under the current system, nobody “regularly holds the mayor’s department heads to account,” Ferguson noted. “When we do our annual budget hearings in Chicago, which is basically a two-week blitz in which every department head has to appear in front of the City Council Budget Committee, for most of those commissioners it is their only appearance before the City Council the entire year.”
The 11 areas in which the OIG found that better cooperation among departments could have helped City operations are using litigation data in risk management strategies for the Chicago Police Department (CPD); fairness and consistency in the CPD disciplinary process; imploding the Little Village smokestack; City data quality; the City Capital Improvement Program; Department of Human Resources employee evaluations; compliance with the City’s video release policy in use of force incidents; the City’s youth arrest diversion program; police vehicle maintenance; sanitation citations; and language access.
Others weigh in
Ed Bachrach, founder of the Center for Pension Integrity, supports the chief administrative officer idea.
“A chief administrative officer would and could be a vital element of City administration,” Bachrach said, noting that, in the book he wrote with Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute, The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, “we suggested that perhaps a city manager form of government might benefit Chicago. With a CAO you get much of that benefit.”
Not everyone agrees wholeheartedly that Chicago should have a chief administrative officer.
Morgan Tadish, spokesperson for Alderman Jason Ervin (28th Ward), said the chief administrative officer idea is “not the alderman’s understanding of the structure,” noting Ervin believes “Chicago is one of the largest cities in the country and the mayor has to be directly accountable to the voters. The mayor-elect [Brandon Johnson] should operate as previous mayors have.”
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the 25th Ward said, “it’s important to discuss the functions of a manager,” but is concerned about anything that might undermine “the independence of the branches” of City government.
“The branches are there to hold each other accountable, but we don’t want to create hostility that could undermine the ability to govern,” Sigcho-Lopez continued. “With the new City Council and the new mayor, this is an appropriate time to have the conversation and discuss the role of this position.”
Alderwoman Nicole Lee (11th Ward) also wants to learn more.
“I am always open to hearing ideas on how to promote integrity, accountability, and transparency in City government to ensure it works effectively for all our residents,” she said.
Bachrach said, “critics of the chief administrative officer say that you don’t need one if the mayor has a chief of staff and conducts regular cabinet meetings. But the chief of staff often is consumed with political decisions and often lacks the authority that a CAO would carry. And the chief of staff is not accountable to the City Council as the CAO would be. Cabinet members could be the problem themselves and could be better overseen by the CAO. Currently, the council does not hold those cabinet members accountable.”
Need for charter
As a reform measure, (re)Chicago is working to establish a City charter—a constitution for the City. Ferguson noted mayors ignoring the chief administrative officer provision of the municipal code for 40 years shows the need for such a charter.
“The public can’t enforce provisions of the municipal code,” Ferguson said. “That all needs to be reset at a level of constitution that only the people can change by referendum to provide more balancing of power, checks on government, transparency, and accountability mechanisms.”
Bachrach also is promoting a City charter.
“If this requirement” for a chief administrative officer “was a charter provision, it could not be repealed except with voter approval,” Bachrach said.
“The City is at the edge of a critical transition in government,” Witzburg said. “We look forward to opportunities to partner with the incoming mayoral administration and a new City Council, to amplify our work in pursuit of effective, efficient, and accountable City government.”
The OIG is an independent, nonpartisan oversight agency whose mission is to promote economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and integrity in administering city government programs and operations. Log on to igchicago.org, call (833) 825-5244, or email [email protected] for more information.
To reach Bachrach, log on to http://www.pensionintegrity.org/contact/. For (re)Chicago, log on to www.rechicago.org. For Ervin, log on to www.aldermanervin.com or call (773) 533-0900. For Lee, log on to www.chicago.gov/city/en/about/wards/11.html call (773) 254-6677. For Sigcho-Lopez, log on to www.25thward.org or call (773) 523-4100.