Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has taken numerous steps to clean up his city's scandal-plagued procurement system. He has vowed not to accept campaign contributions from contractors, rewritten the lax ordinance regulating minority set-asides and withdrawn the city's association with its most troubled contracting program. But as important as any of these--and certainly more unorthodox--is his choice of Mary A. Dempsey to be the city's new procurement chief.
Daley trusts the 51-year-old Dempsey to do almost anything. He has proven that before. She had no experience running libraries when he gave her that job 11 years ago, and she responded by setting up a widely admired program that produced more than 40 new library facilities. At one point, the mayor tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dempsey to take over the school system. But recently, when he asked her to clean up the mess in city procurement, she agreed. "She has a reputation for being an effective manager and also for coming into something and cleaning it up, so to speak," says Beth Doria, of Chicago's Federation of Women Contractors.
Dempsey has a lot of cleaning to do. Just over a year ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that private trucks in the city's $40 million Hired Truck operation had been hired to do nothing. Bribery was revealed to be rampant. Although Daley has since outsourced oversight of the program, indictments against some 27 individuals (including 14 city employees) are outstanding. In another case, three men were convicted in February of fraud in a scheme involving a Daley campaign contributor.
Many of the problems revealed by the Sun-Times had been aired in a widely ignored consultant's report several years ago. "I don't have any illusion that this was some change of heart and they've suddenly had a conversion on ethics," says Jay Stewart, of the local Better Government Association. "They were getting hammered in the media day in, day out, and they had to change some things they were doing."
Dempsey vows a "total scrubbing" of Chicago's purchasing process. She has called for expensive new check-and-balance systems and brought in outside experts in procurement and white-collar crime. No one seems to doubt her ability to make a difference. Before going to work for the city, she was a prominent Chicago attorney in private practice with a reputation for creativity and competence. But there's still a question as to whether Dempsey can change the culture at one of the city's most troubled agencies--especially when she insists she will fix the problem in a few months and then return to running the libraries.
As Dempsey puts it, her main chore is just making procurement functional so someone else can take over. "My responsibility," she says, "is to get things operating on a credible level again." If she can accomplish that modest-sounding goal, Dempsey will have done Daley and the city a great service.