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Chicago Mon Jul 13 2009
A well-reasoned (and researched) post by EveryBlock (and Chicago City Payments) co-founder Daniel X. O'Neil plunges into the Homero Tristan affair, separating fact from narrative and going to the heart of exactly why we should care about things like this, even when we're all scandal fatigued. If you've read James Merriner's great book Grafters and Goo Goos, you know that the modern era's reform efforts have become institutionalized and prone to make-workism. This has the dual effect of boring the general population, and eliciting backlash from the political class who see "reform" as just a cover for political ambition by outsiders. O'Neil's exploration of what the actual ethical lapses were in the Tristan "scandal" is instructive: it was a failure of protocol as a symptom but not an example of power politics, and our reaction to it should be calibrated as such (and, we should also think about why we have these protocols in the first place).
On June 26th, the city's inspector general, David Hoffman, put out a report criticizing the behavior of Human Resources Commissioner Homero Tristan, and calling for him to be sacked. Tristan subsequently resigned. The news reports focused on the fact that a "former top aide" to Mayor Daley has resigned in a "hiring scandal". But, as always, it's important to know exactly what happened, before a scandal turns into A Scandal, where everybody knows the personalities but not the facts. Tristan's resignation and reporters' questions about it caused much Mayoral huffing and puffing, with the Mayor claiming Tristan had done nothing seriously wrong, and insinuating that the IG was running wild.
The Mayor sounding a note like that means something, and there has been a subsequent pushback against Hoffman from several quarters. Tristan's lawyer, Bill Coulson (husband to state Representative Elizabeth Coulson) wrote a publicized letter to the Mayor defending Tristan's conduct in the matter and accusing the IG of being irresponsible in making his report public and playing fast and loose with the facts (Hoffman didn't respond). Rumors of Hoffman's political aspirations, always the best way to cast doubt on a civil servant ("He just wants to be one of the cool kids, like us!") have begun to leak.
The Tribune ran an edging on asinine op-ed accusing Hoffman of being overzealous:
it seems Chicago's inspector general, David Hoffman, is intent on turning everyday networking into guilt-by-association, as well as casting clouds of suspicion on those engaged in the civic arena as if it were a criminal act. My intention here is not to defend the commissioner, but to sound the alarm on the death of civic participation.
Hoffman's most recent report is the latest example of an investigator run amok. Never mind him tarnishing the career and damaging the reputation of Tristan, his newest target. Hoffman is a reformer's reformer. Democracy be damned!
This op-ed is a good place to start, because it was written by Juan Rangel, head of the powerful and influential United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO), a once-independent voice for working class Latino neighborhoods. UNO was once a radical Alinsky-ite organization that fought the powers that be; they are now an accommodating organization that is on the forefront of privatizing public education, with Mayor Daley chairing that particular effort. UNO's privatization effort recently received $100m in public money for private-operated schools..
UNO, in other words, is an important part of the Daley coalition in Latino communities, one that thrives on its access to, rather than confrontation of, power and the status quo. So maybe Mr. Rangel's grave concern about democracy and fear of the disruption of "professional networks" has more to do with the influence and power of his organization than about providing fair and open services to the people of Chicago (in fact, he kind of says that himself). Rangel's eye-roll-inducing editorial even tries to bring President Obama's campaign into it, accusing of Hoffman of not wanting people to get involved in politics to avoid the appearance of bias. Rangel's op-ed is an example of the backlash against "reformism", characterizing it as elitist and opportunisitic, as an effort by phony moralist Borgias in cloistered institutions to attack the "people's government" while cloaking their ambition in reform-hued vestments. It's a seductive worldview that many, myself included, entertain at one point or another. But it's not a realistic one.
It is important not to play into that interpretation of reform by unreasonably blowing ethical lapses and transgressions into world-shattering "scandals". This isn't a scandal on par with Hired Truck or dozens of yet-unreported scandals we may soon learn about O'Hare contracting or in the Water Department. We joke about "scandal fatigue" but it is a real problem, and one that has probably unnaturally elongated the life of a political establishment that should have collapsed years ago.
Essentially, all Tristan is accused of doing is failing to follow a federally required protocol:
1. An alderman wrote a letter to the city's human resources to keep an employee from being reassigned;
2. Federally-mandated protocols, through the Shakman decrees, required that such contact from elected officials to the city's personnel management agents be reported to the Inspector General and the Shakman Monitor (the much-maligned Noelle Brennan, Berny Stone's arch-nemesis);
3. Tristan is accused of not reporting that contact immediately and, later, lying to investigators asking about it.
This was the breach that Hoffman's office thought merited termination. The infraction Rangel discusses in his editorial--failure to alert the monitor to (what appears to be an appropriate) contact from City Clerk Miguel Del Valle--was less serious and Hoffman only recommended a short suspension.
Tristan is obviously no patronage criminal mastermind. But these rules were put in place for a reason (Cf., last eighty years of Chicago political history) and there is more to lose by lax enforcement than by over-strict enforcement.
O'Neil's piece should be read in its entirety (if for no other reason than it will make clear what was in the IG's original report), but here's an extended excerpt (by permission of the author) to give a good sense of the subtleties of the issue:
It seems certain that a whole bunch of City employees did their jobs here
One last bit about the nature of the firestorm of defensive defense of the former Commissioner doesn't sit right with me. There's been much "but their requests were denied" talk, but no discussion of the process and people that led to those decisions. This is a long snip, but worth it:
The Monitor discovered that the job duties of Administrative Assistant III's ("AA III") in the City Clerk's Office were very different than the AA III job description. This prompted a "reclassification audit" by DHR. The DHR Analyst assigned to the audit analyzed what the AA III's did in the Clerk's Office and concluded that the proper title / job description for these positions was License Enforcement Aide, a lower-graded position. The DHR Commissioner then sent a letter to the City Clerk informing him of this conclusion. The City Clerk wrote a letter back disagreeing with the audit and arguing that the proper title / job description was closer to that of a Revenue Investigator, which would have been a slightly higher-graded position. Although the City Clerk is an elected official, this was obviously a step taken by the City Clerk as a department head and would be a typical step for a department head in this situation.
A few days later, the DHR Commissioner emailed one of his top deputies (with a cc to the DHR Analyst) stating that the Clerk "is upset regarding a reclass[ification decision]. [C]an we address it and make it happen for him, and if we can't please let me know what the problems are." Later that day, the DHR Analyst wrote a memo to the Commissioner explaining why the City Clerk's suggestion was not possible and why her original analysis was correct.
The DHR Commissioner continued to question the DHR Analyst about the findings in the audit, and the DHR analyst was asked to write another memo analyzing the pros and cons of the City Clerk's proposal. She wrote that there were no pros and explained the cons. A meeting with the City Clerk, the DHR Commissioner, and relevant staff followed. The Clerk's Office said that the AA III's were now doing additional duties which were more consistent with an equal or higher-graded position. The DHR Commissioner directed a second DHR analyst to do a "re-audit" in light of this new information. The second analyst reached the same conclusion as the first DHR Analyst. Ultimately, the DHR Commissioner sent another letter to the City Clerk reaching the same conclusion as his initial letter - that the AA III's would need to be downgraded to License Enforcement Aides.
What I see in those three paragraphs is a whole bunch of people doing their jobs:
- The Shakman Monitor, reviewing the job description of an obscure but important role in City government and finding it different than the actual job duties performed in that job. This is a central role of the Monitor, since juking job duties is a time-honored method of corruption
- The City Clerk, Miguel del Valle, going to bat for his employees during tough economic times
- A DHR Analyst who listens to the arguments and makes reasoned decisions and is able to back them up when questioned by superiors
- A second DHR Analyst doing another independent audit and coming to the same conclusion
- The DHR Commissioner, Homero Tristan (credit where it's due), who accepts the analysis of his employees
- Other employees of both departments spending time trying to honestly define the job for every City worker who holds it
I'm really grateful to these people for this work.
This analysis is what makes Rangel's op-ed so disingenuous and, in fact, dangerous. True, Homero Tristan shouldn't be burned in effigy as a machine hack out to clout jobs for the connected--at least, that's not what he was accused of and there's no evidence that that's what he was doing. At the same time, we shouldn't go ahead and start attacking the motives and character of an Inspector General just doing his job, and trying to make sure that the letter of the federal order is followed exactly. There's a reason the order errs on the side of less discretion for the city in these kinds of situations; it was that very discretion that allowed for shenanigans. Accusing the IG of hating democracy and holding bizarre potlucks in support of Tristan sends the message that "community groups" supposedly in the business of advocating for the people are opposed to independent oversight of government affairs.