Mayor Lori Lightfoot has vowed to preserve the power aldermen cherish to hand-pick ward superintendents who can make or break their political futures. But Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) isn’t taking any chances.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Hopkins plans to introduce an ordinance changing the law to make it clear that the job of ward superintendent is a Shakman-exempt position with hiring and firing controlled by the local alderman.
Superintendents have been hired by the Department of Streets and Sanitation, but essentially chosen by the alderman.
“The hiring authority was not formally in the aldermanic office. It was in Streets and San. It was just a courtesy that, all these years, the department always went along with the aldermanic recommendation. That’s a problem. Informal processes don’t really work with the Shakman consent decree,” Hopkins said.
“We had a court-appointed monitor for a period of time who made all those decisions. The mayor didn’t always agree with them, going back two mayors. And who’s to say we won’t eventually have another court-appointed monitor who has to look at our Shakman compliance? … It just makes sense to clean it up and to make sure the language in the statute is in full compliance with the spirit of the Shakman consent decree.”
The Shakman decree banned political considerations in city hiring and firing, though some positions are exempt. A federal hiring monitor had been in charge of enforcing that ban, but a judge dismissed that monitor in 2014, and the job fell to Joe Ferguson, the soon-to-depart city inspector general.
After a two-year audit, Ferguson concluded the ward superintendent’s job title “does not meet the legal requirements for a Shakman-exempt designation and, therefore, should be subject to the standards and procedures, as well as political factor prohibitions, generally applicable under the city’s hiring plan.”
Lightfoot said last week she plans to steer clear of that “third rail.”
But, Hopkins said he’s not about to leave such an important issue to “the mayor’s judgment call.”
“It’s a key policy position that, in many ways, can make or break an alderman’s reputation. If you do a good job maintaining your ward and the streets are plowed, the trash is picked up, the trees are trimmed, the graffiti is removed, your voters will likely forgive you for a lot other things that you do that they might not agree with,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins’ ordinance turns longstanding practice into city policy. It states ward superintendents are “to advise the alderman of the ward to which they are assigned” on Streets and Sanitation operations, “allocation of discretionary infrastructure resources” and a host of other issues.
“Contingent upon the recommendation of the alderman of the applicable ward, ward superintendents shall be hired by the Department of Streets and Sanitation, provided that the individual meets the qualifications under this section and is otherwise eligible for employment with the city,” Hopkins’ proposed ordinance states.
“The alderman for the ward to which the ward superintendent is assigned may, at any time, request the removal of the ward superintendent in writing to the Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation.”
For the first time, the ordinance also spells out qualifications for the job.
Ward superintendents must have “at least five years of work experience in municipal refuse collection, street cleaning or snow removal operations,” with three of those years spent “in a supervisory role related to the responsibilities of the position.” Either that or “an equivalent of education, training and experience.”
They must also “possess a valid State of Illinois driver’s license.”
That’s particularly important because indicted Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) once hired her son, Kenny, as ward superintendent even though he lacked a valid driver’s license, which would be essential to drive around the ward to survey conditions.
In 2017, she argued there was nothing wrong with nepotism if the person getting hired does a decent job.
“If I can’t have somebody there that I trust, who am I gonna put there? Some lazy anybody? … My people deserve better than that. And most of the people in our ward pretty much know my family,” Austin said at the time.
“Why is it so wrong for you to have your family member, your cousin or whatever working? Are you saying they don’t deserve to work either? . . . It’s so unfair for you to lambast us all the time when we have our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, whomever on the payroll.”
The day after the Sun-Times disclosed Kenny Austin’s hiring, Carrie Austin paid her son’s delinquent child support payments, lifting his license suspension.
Ferguson refused to comment on Hopkins’ ordinance.
In a press release accompanying his audit, the departing inspector general recommended the Department of Human Resources “immediately remove” the ward superintendent’s job from the “exempt titles list” and conduct “all future hires … in accordance with the processes and procedures under the city’s hiring plan.”
That means minimum qualifications, a “competitive interview process” to identify the “best-qualified candidates” and prohibiting “political factors and considerations” from invading the selection process, he wrote.
“An improperly classified position can negatively affect training, productivity, and development not only within the role itself, but in public perception of political influence and bias,” Ferguson was quoted as saying.
“Shakman-exemption applies only to titles with the authority to make policies or involve duties with a certain threshold of political sensitivity. The ward superintendent title has neither.”