CHICAGO - Mayor Lori Lightfoot has chosen former deputy inspector general for public safety Deborah Witzburg to be Chicago’s new, $178,488-a-year watchdog in an apparent attempt to burnish her reformer credentials.
Walter Katz, who served as deputy chief of staff for public safety under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of five members of the search committee that recommended Witzburg and another candidate from outside Chicago.
Katz said the mayor has chosen wisely in Witzburg.
He’s confident that under Witzburg’s leadership, a watchdog’s office with an "excellent national reputation" will only be enhanced to the benefit of Chicago taxpayers.
"She knows the inspector general’s office. She knows Chicago government. And in her role as public safety inspector general, she did a very fine job," Katz said Wednesday.
As for Lightfoot’s openly-stated desire for an inspector general who "understands the importance of staying in their lane," Katz said he has "not spoken to the mayor about her mindset and has no idea what she would or wouldn’t tolerate."
But, he added: "When it has come to making these important decisions about who leads the various accountability offices in the city of Chicago, she’s made some really good decisions."
The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that the search for Joe Ferguson’s replacement was down to two finalists: Witzburg and the outsider.
The identity of the out-of-town candidate was not known. Sources would say only that it was not a household name and that Witzburg was clearly the more experienced of the two.
Also weighing against the other candidate was how long it could take for an outsider to learn the ropes of Chicago politics and how hampered the new watchdog might be until they did.
Over the years, mayoral appointees from outside Chicago have repeatedly been chewed up and spit out by the city’s unique brand of politics.
The overriding question was whether Lightfoot was willing to appoint Witzburg even though she was chosen by Ferguson, with whom the mayor clashed openly and repeatedly and, ultimately, forced out.
Lightfoot’s decision to choose Witzburg would seem to prove she is primarily concerned with shoring up her progressive bonafides amid complaints that she has not been nearly as transparent as she had pledged to be, given her campaign promise to "bring in the light" in the wake of the corruption scandal still swirling around indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).
The new inspector general refused to comment. If confirmed by the City Council, she will be locked into a four-year term.
Witzburg is the third person to serve as Chicago’s deputy inspector general for public safety. She stepped down from that job to avoid a conflict of interest as she pursued the top job.
Under Ferguson and Witzburg, the public safety section did a series of high-profile audits and reports sharply critical of the Chicago Police Department and Lightfoot.
Those reports targeted everything from the error-filled gang database and the slow walk toward compliance with a federal consent decree to a ShotSpotter contract that, Witzburg contended, rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with areas they’re charged with patrolling.
Even more damning and embarrassing to the mayor was the inspector general’s blistering critique of CPD’s handling of civil unrest in 2020 that devolved into two devastating rounds of looting.
It concluded CPD was "outflanked and unprepared" for problems it should have anticipated and that rank-and-file officers were "left to high-stakes improvisation without adequate supervision or guidance."
Before ending his 12-year run as Chicago’s top watchdog, Ferguson also delivered a 163-page report on the botched police raid that humiliated social worker Anjanette Young, who was left handcuffed and naked for 40 minutes in a room full of male police officers as she pleaded with them that they had raided the wrong home.
Given that investigative history and how defensive Lightfoot can be when criticized, it was at least an open question whether the mayor would choose a new inspector general with potential to embarrass her as much as Ferguson had.
Now, she has that fiercely independent watchdog in Witzburg.
Only time will tell whether Lightfoot will tolerate the inevitably critical reports that come her way, or whether Chicago is headed for yet another public clash between a mayor and the city’s independent watchdog.
Katz said he has "been on both sides of that table." He’s been "in mayor’s offices" and in "those types of inspector general positions," even though they were lower in profile.
"They’re both professionals. And they’re different personalities than, perhaps, Joe [Ferguson] brought to the table. So, we’ll see how it works out. But, I’m optimistic they’ll be able to work really well together," Katz said.
"I know them both. I know they both want what is best for Chicago. Sometimes, inspectors general do things that will make those over whom they have oversight uncomfortable. But we were very impressed with the professionalism that Deborah Witzburg showed as the public safety IG and as to what we believe she can bring to the table. And I have to believe the mayor saw the same thing."
Ferguson could not be reached for comment. He is a former federal prosecutor who served with Lightfoot in the U.S. attorney’s office.
When he was appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 to replace departing Inspector General David Hoffman, Lightfoot was among those who vouched for and recommended him.
That close relationship initially raised questions about just how independent Ferguson would be in a Lightfoot administration. But, it wasn’t long before there was behind-the-scenes tension.
After Lightfoot hinted strongly she would not reappoint Ferguson because she "favors term limits" and does not believe "people should stay in office indefinitely,’ Ferguson decided to go out on his own terms.
Ferguson told the Sun-Times last fall he was unable to recommend disciplinary action against any city employees for mishandling the aftermath of the raid on Young’s home because a simultaneous, outside investigation requested by the mayor included interviews with 20 of those same city employees. Lightfoot’s administration then claimed attorney-client privilege to shield that information from him, Ferguson said.
At the time, he characterized the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the Anjanette Young video as a "remarkable, troubling closing of a circle."
"It brings us back where we were five or six years ago and where her career got its jump-start. Yet the city is engaged in similar activity and, in this instance, with respect to a living victim," he said.