Best city council committee for gauging how the council actually works

Public Safety

For years, the Committee on Finance, chaired by City Council dean Edward Burke, has had the bulk of responsibility for reviewing significant legislation and financial transactions before sending them to the full council for approval. In May, however, Mayor Rahm Emanuel convinced aldermen to give some of the responsibilities to a newly formed committee, Workforce Development and Audit, and to name his leading council ally, 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor, as chairman. Both committees need oversight themselves in the coming years, since they'll be the conduits for Emanuel's promised "reform" agenda. But the Committee on Public Safety offers a better example of how the council functions—and doesn't. Under council rules, the committee—called Police and Fire before Emanuel renamed it this spring—has jurisdiction over the city's police, fire, and emergency management departments, which together account for more than a third of the city's $6.2 billion annual budget. But an analysis last year by the nonprofit Chicago Justice Project found that just 1 percent of the items on the committee's agenda from 2006 to 2009 had anything to do with crime or violence, while 40 percent concerned the donation of used vehicles to other municipalities. Things haven't changed much since then. During the last six months, city officials, candidates for office, and the public were engaged in critical discussions about officer deployment, gun violence, community policing, and the impact of budget problems on public safety. Yet the committee didn't meet to address any of those issues. And while it recently quizzed new police superintendent Garry McCarthy for several hours before unanimously approving his appointment, it has only considered a dozen other legislative matters since December—four of them concerning more vehicle donations. In other words, it has tremendous responsibility and power but rarely does anything with it—just like the council as a whole. —Mick Dumke