News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

The City Council's rules committee: Where good legislation goes to die

Mayor Emanuel doesn't have to fight City Council proposals he doesn't like—he just buries them.

by

9 comments

For a guy promising to run the most transparent administration in Chicago history, Mayor Emanuel isn't afraid to steal a trick or two from the masters of the old machine, starting with the great Mayor Daley.

I'm not talking about the Daley who preceded Emanuel, but his father: Richard J. Daley, the Boss who ran Chicago from 1955 to 1976.

True, Mayor Emanuel's not shutting off the microphones of dissenting aldermen, as the old mayor did once or thrice. Instead, he's finding another way to cut out meddlesome debate—by sending unwanted legislation into the City Council's rules committee, where it can die peacefully, without so much as a hearing. And thus Chicagoans are protected from measures they might actually want adopted.

Aiding and abetting Mayor Emanuel is the chairman of the rules committee, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, whose tenure dates back to Boss Daley's regime. And so great traditions get passed from one generation to the next.

Though now that I think about it, Mayor Emanuel's smart enough to have figured this one out on his own.

Aldermen Mell currently has at least three measures lodged in rules: Alderman Ameya Pawar's proposal to set up an independent budget office (never gonna happen, since the mayor doesn't want anyone but the mayor to be involved with crafting the budget); Alderman Roderick Sawyer's plan to require analysis of privatization deals before they're consummated (more on that later); and the most recent entry, a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, which Mayor Emanuel apparently loves too much to allow aldermen to discuss them in a public meeting.

The committee burial process works something like this.

When aldermen get an idea for a new resolution or ordinance, they write up a draft and circulate it among their peers. Various other aldermen sign on, even when they know the measure might never pass, on the grounds that if I sign on to your proposal, you'll sign on to mine.

The chief sponsor introduces his idea to the full council, which sends it to an appropriate committee for consideration.

In most instances, it's clear which committee should handle the proposal—zoning matters go to the zoning committee, for instance.

Logic similarly dictated that the charter school resolution—introduced by aldermen Matt O'Shea (19th), Pat Dowell (3rd), Rick Munoz (22nd), and Bob Fioretti (2nd)—would end up with the education committee.

But when O'Shea introduced the resolution at the council meeting last week, Alderman Danny Solis (25th) immediately moved to send it to rules.

And why does Solis have such authority? Because an unwritten rule in the council gives any alderman the authority to direct any proposal to any committee—which of course lets them dump shit they don't want into a committee whose chairman will make sure it never gets heard.

Welcome to Chicago, everybody!

What's doubly interesting is that the charter school proposal is a nonbinding resolution—meaning that even if it passed, it couldn't stop Mayor Emanuel from converting every school in town into a charter. But the sponsoring aldermen hoped it would prompt a discussion about whether it's right to open new charters while dozens of traditional public schools are slated to close.

Also, there's the issue of teacher salaries. Charter schools are nonunion, which allows them to pay their teachers bubkes.

Alderman Solis, however, is close—quite close—to the United Neighborhood Organization, which runs one of the largest charter school empires in town. In turn, UNO's CEO, Juan Rangel, is close—quite close—to Mayor Emanuel and Ed Burke, the only alderman who's been in office longer than Richard Mell. Which may explain why it's one of the largest charter school empires in town.

There are several explanations for why Solis was moved to send the charter school resolution to the rules committee.

Alderman Munoz says Solis did it at the behest of Mayor Emanuel. "Dick Mell was supposed to ask for it to go to rules, but Mell got cold feet," says Munoz. "So the mayor was forced to find another alderman to send it to rules. That was Danny."

Not so, Solis insists. "I did it on my own," he says, "because it's a larger committee—it will get more discussion."

I'll say this for Danny Solis: no matter how many times I may have criticized him through the years, he always has the courtesy to take my calls—unlike a few scaredy-cats who run at the hint of hard questions.

Speaking of which, Alderman Mell did not return my call for comment.

Anyway, Alderman Solis is right that the rules committee is larger than the others—every alderman is a member of rules.

Still, that doesn't add up to much. Aldermen can attend any committee meeting and weigh in on any proposal, even if they're not formally members of the committee.

Secondly, all the aldermen get the chance to discuss and vote on legislation when it comes to the full council.

Thirdly, now that the charter school resolution is lodged in Mell's committee, aldermen won't get to discuss it at all. According to what several aldermen tell me, Mell has no intention of ever holding a hearing.

Thus, in the name of facilitating more aldermanic debate, the mayor's allies have ensured there will be none whatsoever.

Which leads me to ask this of Alderman Mell: Why are you pimping for Mayor Emanuel?

You were here long before he got here. You'll be here as long as you want, regardless of whether he's moved on to his next job or office. You don't need him to win reelection for yourself or your daughter, state rep Deb Mell.

What happened to the old Alderman Mell who stood on his desk and thundered against mayoral autocracy?

Different mayor, different Mell, I guess.

Still, all is not lost. It's possible to get a proposal out of the rules committee—it requires a simple majority. I asked Alderman Munoz if he and the other sponsors of the charter resolution had the 26 votes needed.

"I doubt it," he said.

But 33 aldermen signed on.

"Yes, but they won't all be there if the mayor goes against it."

I don't blame them. I don't know if I could withstand one of those infamous mayoral telephone calls, where he yells, drops a few F-bombs, and says mean things about my mama.

So there won't be any charter-moratorium resolution, freeing Mayor Emanuel to close more unionized schools and open more nonunion charters, thus making more teachers work longer for less.

All in the name of helping kids.

Don't count on Alderman Sawyer's privatization ordinance to surface either.

It would force the mayor to explain how such deals would affect outsourced city workers: Would they be making less money under the new contract? And, if so, how much overall savings would taxpayers reap?

With the information, aldermen would at least have a sense of whether they're guarding the public trust—or simply diverting money from working-class people who live in communities like Englewood and Woodlawn and sending it to gazillionaires around the world.

That's what the mayor effectively did last year when he outsourced the water department's customer-service operation to a company based in Japan.

I don't think even the late, great Boss Daley outsourced a contract all the way to Japan. Give Mayor Emanuel credit: he's a fast learner.

Comments (9)

Showing 1-9 of 9

Add a comment
 

Add a comment