Feb 28, 2024 - Politics

Mayor Johnson's commissioner shuffle leaves some agencies in disarray

Photo of a man behind a podium on a stage

Mayor Brandon Johnson with newly confirmed housing commissioner Lissette Casteneda (far left), water commissioner Randy Conner and Department of Planning and Development commissioner Ciere Boatright (far right) Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Nearly 11 months after he was elected, Mayor Brandon Johnson is still assembling his cabinet.

Why it matters: Leadership transitions and continued uncertainty in city departments can delay progress on important projects, planning and budgets.

State of play: Johnson has declined to say whether he will replace more commissioners, telling Axios, "I don't discuss personnel issues."

  • But questions remain over leadership at CPS and the CTA, which some have speculated would get new heads.

The big picture: "A mayor's cabinet is usually mostly appointed within the first months of their administration — certainly Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel had done so," Dick Simpson, author of "Chicago's Modern Mayors," tells Axios.

Catch up quick: Johnson's slow cabinet building process has been punctuated by sudden dismissals that have left departments destabilized.

  • Last August, Johnson fired health commissioner Allison Arwady on a Friday evening without allowing her to say goodbye to her staff, she says. Soon other top health officials left the department, which was already suffering from hundreds of vacancies.
  • The mayor this month abruptly fired Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner Erin Harkey without naming a successor. The firing comes as DCASE gears up for a busy festival season, including the 20th anniversary celebration of Millennium Park.

Inside the room: The ousting was so sudden that staff weren't addressed, nor was Harkey informed of her last day, sources close to the department tell Axios.

  • Mayoral officials declined to comment on these details when presented with them.

What they're saying: "There was no heads-up; I'm just shocked," Ald. Nick Sposato, who leads the Special Events Committee, tells Axios.

The other side: "Every administration has made changes in its leadership," Johnson told Axios. "I've made a commitment to bring people along who have the confidence of my leaders. … And in the event that this is not the appropriate fit for them, I have to make another decision."

The intrigue: Beyond firings, Johnson has also executed some controversial appointments. This month he made Marlene Hopkins acting buildings commissioner after ousting her boss, Matthew Beaudet, the city's first Native American department head.

  • But Hopkins was found negligent in the 2020 coal plant implosion that left much of Little Village blanketed in coal dust. Environmental justice leaders are now demanding that Johnson release the inspector general's report on the matter.

Johnson also appointed Alfonzo "Randy" Conner to return to the top job at the Water Department, where he'll oversee at least $336 million to address lead in Chicago's water.

  • But in 2018, during his last stint as water commissioner, Conner said Chicago did not have a lead problem, and he actively lobbied to stop Ald. Scott Waguespack from launching public hearings on the matter.
  • Conner's office did respond to Axios questions about whether his views on the city's lead problems have changed.
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