Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that during his election campaign one of the leading gripes he heard from residents was that there are just too many aldermen. Chicago's City Council has 50 members, while LA's has just 15 and Philadelphia's 17. In fact, among big U.S. cities only New York, which is almost three times as large, has a larger council—and it's only larger by 1. Shrinking the body could save taxpayers millions of dollars a year, as the Better Government Association has found.
Aldermen, of course, say that's fraught with risk. They note that constituents count on them to be accessible in ways that no other elected officials are—they get thousands of calls a year from people weighing in on issues or seeking help navigating the city service maze in search of new garbage cans or sidewalk repairs. Cutting back on their numbers, aldermen argue, would reduce citizens' ability to use and participate in their government.
But there's a counterargument too, and it's based on the kinds of things I discovered in putting together a story on our city's legislators for this week's issue: aldermen are earning up to $110,000 a year to oversee administrative matters that other city departments also handle—things like sidewalk cafe permit applications and residential parking rules. Every one of these items requires a separate ordinance that the whole council has to approve. That adds up to about 1,000 ordinances a month.
When you see how it breaks down for each alderman, it's not very pretty. You can click here for a spreadsheet showing the types of legislation sponsored by each alderman over the last five months. To see the actual legislation, go to the source, the City Clerk's excellent new Legislative Information Center.
Aldermen are protective of their housekeeping responsibilities because they want to retain power over their slice of the city—and because they don't want to become irrelevant. They also say the small stuff isn't as small as we might think.
"The aldermen would balk at releasing that too much because we do spend huge amounts of time having meetings with people about these administrative matters, and unless someone really pays attention you can have a mess on your hands, i.e., giving out too many standing or valet zones on a block, and you end up with no parking for anyone else," said Scott Waguespack, the 32nd Ward alderman.
But Waguespack is hardly a defender of the status quo, and he says there's no doubt that these matters aren't the best use of the council's time. "I just had a conversation with one of the new alderman's staffers and said I would like to propose some policy changes that send the administrative/ward level matters back to the departments, with aldermanic input, and focus more on policy-oriented legislation," he said. "We clearly needed to do more legislative homework over the past decade, and should be doing more over the next four years."
Waguespack's point is that there are already city departments that oversee things like sign permits and traffic regulations. The city could set up a system so that aldermen could weigh in without clogging up the legislative process.
Rookie 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar supports such reforms, but he doesn't blame the current situation entirely on the aldermen. “There’s also the responsibility of the public to think about what their aldermen are supposed to be doing,” he said. “We've created this culture where the alderman is someone who delivers services, but that’s absolutely not the case—there is a centralized system for that. If we took the 50 aldermen out of the way for a few days, people would still need city services, and I guarantee you that they would figure out they need to call 311.”
For more on this issue and other goings-on in Chicago politics, please listen to my conversation this week with Mike Stephen on the always-compelling Outside the Loop Radio.