This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom working for transparency, efficiency and accountability in government.
CHICAGO — Both Chicago mayoral candidates and a growing chorus of City Council members are calling for reviving a stand-alone department to handle environmental issues more than seven years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to disband an agency that did exactly that.
The increasing support follows revelations in February in a Better Government Association investigation that found a dramatic decline in environmental enforcement actions by the city since Emanuel eliminated the environment department in 2012 and shifted its responsibilities to other parts of the city bureaucracy, in particular the public health department.
The chair of the council committee that oversees environmental issues has now proposed an ordinance that would reverse the changes imposed by Emanuel, who is not seeking re-election and will leave office in May.
“Merging health and the environment seemed like a good idea at the time but it didn’t work out,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), an Emanuel ally and head of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection.
Citing data from the BGA investigation, Cardenas said he thinks he has support among aldermen for his proposal.
Cardenas’ move comes as both candidates who aim to replace Emanuel in the April 2 runoff election told the BGA they would use their first budget to re-establish an environment department.
“I don’t know why — given the real challenges of climate change and water and air quality issues in our city — the department of environment was eliminated but it surely needs to be restored,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, one of the finalists in the mayoral race.
The other candidate, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, made a similar pledge. “When you get rid of a department of environment, nobody takes ownership of a range of environmental issues,” said Lightfoot.
The BGA analysis of city environmental enforcement issues compared city regulatory efforts both before and after Emanuel disbanded the stand-alone agency. City environmental enforcement plummeted during Emanuel’s two terms, with regulators writing fewer than one third the number of citations for polluters during a comparable period under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the BGA found. At the same time, the number of environmental inspections dropped by more than half under Emanuel due to a depleted inspector corps, the BGA found.
“Someone dropped the ball,” Cardenas said.
Cardenas’ proposed ordinance is contingent on the department receiving enough funding to operate. Still, he said he plans to hold council hearings in May to consider the measure, which would re-establish the department no later than October 1.
There are 14 co-sponsors currently signed onto the proposal and Cardenas said more aldermen may sign on in coming weeks.
The move by Cardenas comes just weeks after he narrowly avoided a runoff in the initial February round of city elections amid criticism that he has turned his back on environmental issues in his Southwest Side ward. Among notable criticisms was the development of an asphalt plant across from McKinley Park.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he has asked Cardenas and other aldermen about bringing back the department for years but that the idea gained no traction in the council because Emanuel opposed it, which Cardenas acknowledged.
When Emanuel announced his plan to eliminate the environment department he said it was a cost-cutting measure but promised environmental enforcement wouldn’t get shortchanged.
“The mayor is proud of his administration’s environmental record,” Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath said in a statement this week. “Rather than have environmental work siloed at one department, it was important to the mayor that environmental protection be embraced by all city departments.”
With a new mayor proposing the department, Waguespack said he believes the council will also support it.
“Each ward has environmental problems that need to be tackled,” Waguespack said.