Ald. Matt Martin (47th), the vice chair of the City Council's ethics committee and a consistently vocal advocate for City Council independence, is now working to revive the committee and use it to amplify the oversight work of the city's inspector general. (Credit: Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

The fallout from last week’s revelation that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign sent political emails to public school teachers reverberated to the City Council, where some members called for alderpeople to hold public hearings on the episode.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) — all members of the council’s Democratic Socialist caucus — released a joint statement saying it would take a public committee hearing to “discover the depth of this breach of ethics.”

The statement shone a spotlight not only on the mayor’s race, but on the City Council, which the four alderpeople and some of their colleagues have pushed to sharpen into a more active and independent check on the mayor’s administration.

The City Council Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, whom the alderpeople called to hold a hearing on Lightfoot email issue, has not held a meeting in nearly six months. The committee has met 14 times since the current council took office in 2019, making it among the least-active bodies on the City Council. All those meetings were held before its chair resigned from the council, and the chairman post has sat vacant ever since.

Ald. Matt Martin (47th), vice chair of the ethics committee and a consistently vocal advocate for City Council independence, is now working to revive the committee and use it to amplify the oversight work of the Office of the Inspector General.

Martin, his predecessor on the committee and the city’s former longtime inspector general all agree it will take more than a single committee’s work to turn the City Council into an effective check on the mayor’s administration and a vehicle to muscle through administrative reforms. But Martin argued that getting the ethics committee back together for a meeting is an important start.

“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars [per year] for each of our City Council committees, and all of them can and should be doing important work in a consistent manner,” Martin said in an interview.

Last year, Martin filed a proposal to appoint himself the committee’s new chair following the retirement in August of former chairwoman Ald. Michele Smith (43rd). His colleagues never took the measure up, but last week he used his power as acting chair to schedule a meeting for next Monday as a public forum for some city watchdog findings and pending elections legislation.

City Council oversight past and present

Before 2019, City Council oversight work was shoehorned into the council’s Committee on Rules and Ethics, and the topic was rarely discussed publicly. But Lightfoot, who rode into office on a promise of sweeping ethics reform, spearheaded an effort to create a new standalone ethics committee. It was anointed with the dual mission to be an engine of ethics reform legislation and a nexus point for alderpeople to receive and act upon reports from the inspector general’s office.

“I think every committee has more than enough work to do that would justify something along the lines of a monthly hearing — at bottom, certainly regular business,” Martin said. “The ethics committee is no exception, especially when you look at the terrific work the inspector general’s office continues to do.”

Martin said he plans to give the floor during the Jan. 23 meeting to Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg so she can review two recent quarterly reports on instances of abuse and mismanagement her office found inside the city’s government. The alderperson also said he intends to hold a subject matter hearing on an ordinance he proposed last year to explore public funding for local elections.

“We already have a rubric for what a strong and well-functioning ethics committee looks like, and I want to get back to that,” Martin said of Smith’s time as chair.

Smith said Monday that she worked to make the committee a conduit for behind-closed-doors communication between the City Council and the watchdog office, and she touted the flurry of citywide ethics legislation that cleared the committee on her watch. They included a July 2019 ordinance to hike fines for ethics violators, a December 2019 ban on so-called “cross lobbying” by public officials on other governments, a February 2020 ordinance tightening City Council conflict-of-interest rules and a sweeping 2022 legislative package that firmed up nepotism and vote recusal policies.

“We attacked some very, very big ethics issues — some with the mayor, and some independently,” Smith said. “We created the strongest cross-lobbying ban in the nation, which ended the notion of elected officials . . . being able to essentially lobby each other in exchange for favors that affected their private businesses.”

But Smith rarely called public meetings to dig into inspector general findings — a fact lamented by the previous leader of the watchdog office.

During Joseph Ferguson’s last City Council budget hearing before his term as inspector general expired in late 2021, he said alderpeople were missing an opportunity to publicly hold bureaucrats’ feet to the fire after city departments’ cooperation with his office had “fallen off a cliff.”

While the ethics committee has met six times during this City Council term to discuss legislation and five times to confirm routine mayoral appointments, it has convened just twice — both times meeting jointly with other committees — to go over inspector general reports. The committee held another joint meeting to discuss procurement issues.

Ferguson reiterated his disappointment on Tuesday.

“The IG’s report is basically the fuel that turbocharges legislative oversight,” Ferguson said. Under “a legislature that by culture and structure is not situated to receive and act on those reports . . . things don’t improve when there’s an opportunity to improve.”

Ferguson added that he does not blame Smith for the committee’s failure to live up to its promise. The ethics committee was only supposed to act as a “touchstone” to prompt other committees to hold hearings on inspector general reports, he said. And most committee chairs are not eager to breathe life into findings that are critical of the mayor’s administration.

“The chairs of those other committees are really mayoral allies of a deep order,” Ferguson said. “That gets you into the dynamics of the City Council and why it doesn’t function very well much of the time.”

Smith defended her record on Monday, saying she and her staff were “just getting a system in place” for regular hearings until the COVID-19 pandemic scrambled their plans. She also said scheduling and staffing issues often bottlenecked City Council business.

The former alderperson said her staff was a driving force behind a June 2020 joint meeting of the council’s committees on ethics, budget and public safety to discuss the results of an inspector general’s report on a controversial juvenile detention facility operated by the Chicago Police Department. Ferguson this week recalled that meeting as a “model” of collaboration between the watchdog office and the City Council.

Hurdles to oversight

The mayor can sometimes also act as a direct obstacle to committee oversight of her administration.

Smith said she was “a little disappointed” that some of her legislative priorities never reached the finish line, including a revamp of the inspector general selection process and a ban on former-alderpeople-turned-lobbyists prowling the floor of the City Council.

Lightfoot last week dismissed a question about why she has not supported Martin’s bid to become chair or proposed an alternative in the five months since Smith’s retirement.

“I regularly talk to my colleagues in the City Council to see if there’s any specific issues that they want to bring to the fore,” the mayor said Thursday. “I’ve not heard of any, but if there are, I’m sure that the Ethics Committee will proceed accordingly.”

In November, the mayor and her City Council allies threw cold water on a parallel effort by education committee vice chair Ald. Sophia King (4th) to appoint herself chair and hold a hearing to make Chicago Public Schools leaders answer for potential budget cuts. King is one of eight candidates running to unseat Lightfoot in next month’s election.

Martin said he’s gotten no pushback from the mayor’s administration about the meeting he’s scheduled for Monday.

“We as a body decided three-and-a-half years ago that this was an important committee to be created,” he said. “I haven’t heard from a single person on [the] City Council or in the administration that this hearing shouldn’t happen.”

The North Side alderperson, who is running unopposed for reelection, said it was too early to say whether he would look to chair the ethics committee in the next City Council. But he said he’ll stay invested in making the committee effective — including by pushing for regular public meetings and coordinating with other committees.

“To have an entity like the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight be able to hold regular hearings provides that accountability mechanism that will help ensure that an important IG audit or investigation doesn’t just collect dust, but that we see meaningful progress come out of that important work,” Martin said.

He did not join his colleagues who called for a public hearing on the Lightfoot campaign’s emails but he said he was open to the idea.

Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter and editor for The Daily Line covering Cook County and Chicago government. He previously worked at The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered local real estate news, and DNAinfo Chicago, where he worked as a breaking news reporter and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. A New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, Alex graduated Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.