OIG Finds That the Department of Streets and Sanitation Does Not Meet Its Goals for Weed-Cutting, Impacting Safety and Services

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit of the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s (DSS) weed-cutting program, which determined that DSS does not meet its goals for mowing all City-owned vacant land at least four times during the growing season (May 1-October 31) and addressing all overgrown weed complaints within six weeks. DSS is responsible for cutting weeds that violate the City Code on the public way (e.g., medians and parkways), as well as City-owned and private vacant land. Providing these services in a timely and efficient manner is imperative to the health and safety of individuals living in Chicago, especially those on the West and South Sides of Chicago, who are disproportionately impacted by this problem.

OIG concluded that DSS does not meet its goal for timely and efficient services because it lacks a reliable list of properties that need maintenance, uses an insufficient data system, and has an inconsistent process. Specifically, OIG found that:

• DSS does not have a complete and accurate list of City-owned land to monitor;
• DSS’ paper-based process and data system do not efficiently capture information that would allow the Department to identify delays or performance problems and communicate meaningful information about complaints to residents; and
• lacking an accurate list, ward superintendents often entered citations into the Mobile Electronic Ticketing System for City-owned properties, leaving it up to the Department of Law (DOL) to review and reject these erroneous charges. In 2019, ward superintendents entered 5,265 such citations, constituting nearly one-quarter of the year’s weed-cutting citations. These mistakes wasted the time and resources of both DSS and DOL.

OIG recommended that DSS implement the following changes:

• work with DOL and the Department of Planning and Development to compile a complete and accurate inventory of vacant City-owned properties;
• make ward superintendents responsible only for addressing sanitation issues and responding to complaints, not identifying City-owned properties that need mowing;
• develop performance-based weed-cutting goals, including complaint response times; and
• improve data entry practices, ensuring that it captures all the information necessary to assess its weed-cutting program performance.

DSS agreed with our recommendations and stated that it has already begun to implement corrective actions, such as providing its contractor with weekly mowing lists for City-owned lots and shortening its complaint response goal from 42 days to 21 days.

“We commend DSS for starting to implement changes to improve its weed-cutting operations because, as the Department knows well, high weeds obscure debris, harbor rodents and mosquitoes, and undermine safety and community improvement efforts,” said Inspector General Joe Ferguson. “The problem of vacant lots with overgrown weeds particularly afflicts neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, impacting efforts to combat blight and collaterally contributing to persistent inequities in public safety, public health, and economic vitality, as seen in historically disadvantaged and underserved parts of the City. The lack of a reliable list of City-owned land remains a fundamental barrier to the efficiency of this program as the City continues to waste time and money mistakenly citing its own land, and it is a contributing factor to the slow processing of Sanitation Code citations by the Department of Law as detailed in a September 2019 OIG Audit. We strongly urge that the Law Department and Department of Planning and Development work with DSS to fix the list to improve both service delivery and enforcement aspects of the program.”

The full report can be found online at OIG’s website: bit.ly/DSSWeeds

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The mission of the independent and non-partisan City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) is to promote economy, effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity by identifying corruption, waste, and mismanagement in City government. OIG is a watchdog for the taxpayers of the City and has jurisdiction to conduct investigations and audits into most aspects of City government. If you see corruption, fraud, or waste of any kind, we need to hear from you. For more information, visit our website at: www.igchicago.org.