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In budget debate, the public weighs in while the mayor skips out

After Rahm nixes public budget hearings, aldermen organize their own

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I found myself in the Wells high school auditorium last week eagerly anticipating the big public hearing on the city budget. You know—the annual rite in which the taxpayers get to tell Mayor Emanuel what they think about his plans to spend about $8 billion of their tax dollars.

Only something's different this year: The mayor didn't actually attend the meeting. Nor did any of his department heads, unless they were working undercover to report back to the boss on what everyone's up to.

Welcome to Chicago-style democracy in year two of Mayor Emanuel.

Perhaps I should explain, since he's not going to. This hearing is different from the dog and pony shows you may have read about or seen snippets of on the evening news. Those performances started with the mayor's October 10 budget address to the City Council. That was followed by a couple weeks of hearings in the council chambers, where the mayor dispatches his department heads to be grilled by aldermen who peer over their reading glasses and look stern before returning to their usual obedience. It's an interesting ritual they've developed over the years to fool us into thinking they're vigilant guardians of the public purse.

Then they wait a couple weeks before approving almost everything the mayor asked for.

The public doesn't participate in the City Council hearings because—well, this is not some small village in New England.

Instead the public gets the opportunity to weigh in at one of three hearings that the mayor holds on different sides of town.

Or used to hold. Mayor Richard M. Daley held three of those suckers a year. He made sure his department heads could hear what the people had to say about how their money was spent, as well as the many different ways they asked the mayor to please kiss their ass.

In 2011, during his first budget process, Mayor Emanuel held one such hearing—a rather raucous event at Kennedy-King College in Englewood.

This year he's holding none. Instead, he put together a series of private focus groups with carefully selected batches of citizens.

The mayor says it's more efficient this way. I say he just wants to avoid raucous events. You, the reading public, get to decide what you believe. You just don't get to weigh in about it at a hearing with the mayor.

In any event, the independent-minded aldermen of Chicago—a coalition that generally runs the gamut from ten to none, depending on the issue—decided they should hold their own public meetings. The idea was that "the budget tells us where we are as a city—we should at least listen to what the citizens have to say," as Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti put it.

The first hearing was on October 15 at the Copernicus Center on the northwest side. It was attended by roughly 200 people and moderated by the Reader's own Mick Dumke, who looked dapper as always in his cardigan sweater (which he swears isn't a day over 30 years old). The second was held on October 30 at South Shore high school.

The meeting at Wells began with opening remarks from Alderman Scott Waguespack, who's actually pretty funny in his own dry way. "As many of you know, we have a progressive caucus in the council," he said. "It's obviously kind of small."

Rim shot.

At the front sat the who's who of aldermanic independence in these early years of the 21st century: Aldermen Waguespack, John Arena (45th), Nick Sposato (36th), Rick Munoz (22nd), Toni Foulkes (15th), and Fioretti (2nd). At least two other aldermen—Leslie Hairston and Roderick Sawyer—planned to attend but had other obligations.

"I represent West Englewood," Foulkes told the crowd. "I'm a long way from home, but I love to hear what the people of the city have to say."

With that, the microphone was turned over to the people—about 175 in the crowd, 30 signed up to speak.

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