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Critics often deride the Chicago City Council as a mayoral rubber stamp. Aldermen want you to know the critics have it wrong.
"We are a team on the City Council," Eighth Ward alderman Michelle Harris said today. "There's nothing we can't do with each other."
That raises all sorts of possibilities, but I think she meant that there was nothing aldermen can't do if they work with each other. One thing they certainly can do is give Mayor Daley the go-ahead to commit the city to covering cost overruns should it host the 2016 Olympics. And they did with a unanimous vote this afternoon.
In addition to authorizing the mayor to sign a host-city agreement—which he was already authorized to do—the ordinance they passed requires that Chicago's Olympic planners and organizers publish regular reports on their work and submit to City Council oversight.
The fact that any of this information will be public and available for scrutiny is a credit to Manny Flores, who's made a priority of pushing for "transparency" in tax increment financing, privatization agreements, and the Olympics bid process.
But the passage of legislation is always the product of compromise and, yes, teamwork. In this case, alderman Ed Burke, chairman of the council's finance committee, summoned Flores and the mayor's people to a meeting last week to work out a deal. The end result? Mayor Daley and his Olympic planners had to give up their resistance to letting the public know what sort of business they were conducting on behalf of the public. Flores and his allies had to sacrifice their reluctance to give the mayor a blank check and the right to hand pick which aldermen would be in charge of the oversight process.
So the final ordinance abandons Flores's call for a new City Council Olympics oversight committee. Instead, the council's finance and budget committees get the responsibility of monitoring the work of 2016 planners. Plus, the chairmen of those committees will themselves become members of the planning team.
"We have two of our colleagues in the game, which will represent the council as well," said 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin, who as budget chair will be one of those colleagues. Burke will be the other.
Really, no one should be shocked or outraged that the mayor has persuaded aldermen to work together to give him the authority to determine how they will provide oversight for the Olympics. That's the sort of can-do teamwork that happens at City Hall on a regular basis.
"The membership of Aldermen on standing committees, and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of such committees, shall be determined by the City Council by resolution duly adopted," the council's rules of order [PDF] state. But aldermen long ago ceded that right and responsibility to the executive branch (in addition to regularly violating other laws governing the committee process). Now the mayor and his staff choose who serves on all of the council committees, and only proven loyalists, such as Burke and Austin, serve as chairs or vice chairs.
In speech after speech this afternoon praising the ordinance, the mayor, the spirit of the Olympic games, and the history of Chicago dating back to Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, aldermen proclaimed that any misgivings they'd once had about hosting the games were now long gone. They said the citizens of Chicago are now protected from mismanagement and corruption and any other problems that might arise.
"The critics have been silenced," declared the 12th Ward's George Cardenas. Even Flores was feeling optimistic, releasing a statement praising the compromise legislation and outcome of today's council vote hours before it had actually been taken. "I am very proud of how far we came," he said. "If we are fortunate enough to receive the Olympic bid, the City Council will assume this oversight authority and must execute it with great diligence."
Mayor Daley ended the one-sided debate with an impassioned speech about how the Olympics can transform the image of Chicago before the world. "This is not about the legacy of Mayor Richard M. Daley," he said. "This is about the city of Chicago." Here's hoping he's right, because at this point he's one of the few who would know.