City Hall

Chicago City Hall (Tribune illustration)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to tighten up ethics rules for city employees advanced through a City Council committee Wednesday despite concerns by aldermen that the new rules could handcuff them as they try to deal with issues in their communities.

Rules Committee Chairman Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, acknowledged the new regulations — which govern the kinds of gifts employees and aldermen can accept, the financial interests they have to disclose to supervisors and the kinds of activities they can engage in, among other standards — might not prevent city workers from getting into an ethical bind.

“If somebody has a tendency to get themselves involved in something unethical, I don’t know how this will change (them). I hope it spells out more,” Mell said after the committee unanimously voted to send the ethics ordinance on to the full City Council.

Steve Berlin, executive director of the city Ethics Board, told aldermen the proposed changes “represent state-of-the-art thinking in the world of municipal government ethics.”

But some aldermen worried the proposal goes too far in prohibiting political activities by city employees during work hours. They pointed out they frequently put in long hours with their staff to get questions on the ballot for things like prohibiting alcohol sales in areas of their wards. Such endeavors could run afoul of the no-politicking rules, they said.

“Do we open ourselves up to a bevy of lawsuits from taverns in areas that have been voted dry if we technically did it illegally?” Mell asked.

Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, recalled a 1998 referendum in his Far South Side ward in which an area with 29 liquor licenses was voted dry. He wondered if he would be able to take that step under the new rules, since members of his staff were in effect taking a political position by working to get that referendum on the ballot.

“We need to make sure we’re careful when we start passing stuff like this, that it doesn’t hurt us from governing, and trying to turn our communities around,” Beale said.

State law in effect since 2003 already technically prohibits aldermanic staffers from engaging in that kind of advocacy during work hours, according to Ald. Will Burns, 4th, a member of the panel tapped by Emanuel to make ethics recommendations.

The panel is working on a second round of recommendations, which they could present to Emanuel later this summer.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Whitney Woodward, of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “There is a lot that still can be done.”

Woodward said her organization would like to see “more teeth” in the powers of the Office of Inspector General and others allowed to investigate the conduct of city departments, the council and related agencies.

Also Wednesday, a handful of aldermen said they will work to have referendums placed on the ballots in their wards this November asking voters if they want the Chicago Board of Education to be elected, instead of appointed by the mayor.

The results would be largely symbolic, since any change in the way the board members are picked would have to be made by state lawmakers, and it seems unlikely Emanuel would support a move to take that power away from him.

But Ald. John Arena, 45th, said it’s important to start a citywide discussion on the issue. “You should be able to elect people who spend your taxes,” he said.