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Lots has been written about the skirmishes between mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and City Council dean Ed Burke as they vie for power in the post-Daley world. But lost in the speculation over whether Emanuel will choose to keep Burke as finance committee chairman is the fact that it’s not supposed to be his decision to make.
Emanuel said at a presser Monday that he’d had a “good meeting” with Burke, but he declined to say whether he would back the alderman for another stint as chairman of the council's finance committee, which oversees billions of dollars in bond issues, legal settlements, and other city transactions.
In fact, showing his adroit political skills, Emanuel quickly veered away from Burke to things he’d rather discuss—his plans to fix the schools and his budding “partnership” with the rest of the aldermen.
“There are 50 members and all the members want change, including the chairman,” he said. “They all know this was an election about reform.”
It will be interesting to watch the Burke-Emanuel relationship, but I’ve thought all along that the two most political animals—and prolific fund-raisers—in city government would find a way to work together. Of course they will occasionally push each other around as a way to show some strength, but fighting isn’t really the Chicago way. It’s far better to make a deal.
In my book the key question is how much power the new City Council is going to give the new mayor right off the bat. The committee assignment process will be an early test, showing us whether the aldermen—including 13 rookies, five others starting their first full terms, and a handful of veterans saying this time they really mean that reform stuff—are going to be legislators or lackeys (for the best of reasons, of course).
In meetings with aldermen, Emanuel said, “a lot of ideas have come forward about focusing the committee structure on the kinds of things we need to do to keep the city competitive and to give them the kind of oversight they need to do the job that’s essential for our taxpayers.”
It is an audacious proposal—to have committees doing things that actually matter.
Here's the thing: by law, the mayor is not supposed to be in charge of the committees. Not even if he raised $14.5 million on his way to becoming the first new mayor in 22 years.
Under the council’s own rules, the number, responsibilities, and makeup of committees are the responsibility of the aldermen themselves: “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.”
But since Mayor Daley gained control of the council early in his tenure, aldermen have looked to him for their committee assignments, and he’s the one who has decided which of his favorites get to chair which committees.
Incidentally, the coveted gigs aren’t always those that sound important. Earlier this year Anthony Beale was promoted from the police and fire committee to the transportation committee, which would be a lot more dull if the police committee actually provided oversight of the police department. As it is, moving to transportation bumped the budget at Beale’s disposal from about $132,000 to $473,000.
If there is a reorganization, some aldermen will lose committee chairmanships. Politically, at least, who's expendable will be as much an issue as what's expendable.
Emanuel keeps saying that he doesn’t want a rubber-stamp council—he wants aldermen who will be “partners.” But he was vague about what that will mean in the committee reshaping process.
He said it is “technically correct” that committee assignments are the job of aldermen. He added: “I will have a view on it and I will present my view and obviously the City Council will have their role.”