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Anyone wanting a glimpse of how the Chicago City Council works should have taken in this morning’s meeting of its Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs, and Recreation—all two minutes of it.
Twenty-five items were on the meeting agenda, all of them involving permits, licenses, and fee waivers for events such as the Taste of North Lawndale Back to School Family Peace Fest, the Eckhart Park Run to Fun 5k, and the St. Jerome’s Croatian Fest.
Under current city law, each of these matters requires a separate ordinance that the City Council must pass before it goes into effect. Aldermen of the wards hosting the events typically introduce the legislation and their colleagues sign off.
So the five aldermen at the committee meeting today did their duty: They glanced over the list of ordinances before the measures were introduced as a batch. The aldermen approved them unanimously, with no discussion. The meeting was then adjourned.
It was just the most recent example of how Chicago’s legislative body often functions as little more than an administrative wing of city government.
Thanks to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press office, there’s been a lot of talk recently about his first 100 days in office—so much, in fact, that it’s been easy to forget that the new City Council, featuring 16 first-termers, just passed that benchmark itself. While the depth of the mayor’s accomplishments so far are debatable, an analysis of the legislative record shows that little has changed in council chambers except the people who sit there for meetings.
• Since May 18, when the new council convened for the first time, 2,845 ordinances and orders have been introduced to the council, according to the City Clerk’s legislative information center.
• Almost all of them—about 95 percent—involved administrative and ward-level matters like permit applications, fee waivers, street signage, parking regulations, and sewer rebates; just 5 percent pertained to citywide matters such as air pollution standards and parking regulations for trucks. That’s virtually unchanged from the last six months of the previous council, when administrative and ward-level matters made up 96 percent of the total.
• A little more than half of the ordinances have passed so far—51 percent, to be precise. That’s down from the 66 percent rate of the previous six months, though it’s probable that the number will climb as more ordinances move through the committees in the coming weeks.
• As candidates, most of the new aldermen vowed independence, decrying the council’s well-established reputation as a mayoral rubber stamp. Yet all but two of the passed ordinances were approved unanimously, which makes for a dissension rate of about 0.1 percent.
• In fact, only four dissenting votes were cast in the council’s first 100 days: On June 8 Proco "Joe" Moreno (1st) voted against the mayoral appointment of Human Resources Commissioner Soo Choi; and on July 28 Rick Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), and John Arena (45th) voted against a controversial new concession agreement at O’Hare.
• Meanwhile, the mayor continued to be the most active big-picture legislator. Emanuel was the sponsor or co-sponsor of 70 ordinances and orders with citywide impact, accounting for almost half of the total (46 percent). That means he’s got a little bit of work to do to dominate the council to the extent of his 22-year predecessor, Rich Daley, who had his hands on 57 percent of citywide ordinances.
• After Emanuel, the most active citywide legislator was Ed Burke (14th). As chairman of the finance committee, Burke regularly ushers through legislation to authorize payments of lawsuit settlements and medical bills for injured cops.
• Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes much of the Loop and Near North Side, was the most prolific ordinance sponsor, with 346. All but eight were ward-level and administrative matters.
• Aldermen did introduce a handful of measures with potentially far-reaching impact, including an ordinance that holds financial institutions accountable for maintaining vacant properties they own. The ordinance was introduced by Pat Dowell (3rd) before 21 other aldermen signed on as co-sponsors, and Mayor Emanuel has taken to boasting about it. It has enough teeth that it raised the ire of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
To see a chart showing how all the aldermen stack up, click here.
Aldermen say that their job is to pay attention to the little things in their wards, and note that their constituents wouldn’t like it if no one were vetting applications for new business canopies, handicapped parking signs, and sidewalk café permits. "If anything goes wrong with one of those permit requests, I can assure you that the first person to get a phone call is the local alderman," Reilly told me this spring.
Of course, taxpayers also fund city administrative departments that review and process these things.
There is no doubt that the City Council has become a public punching bag. “Cut the alderman pay and their expenses” is the most popular item in the administration’s online budget suggestion box. And the biggest applause at last night’s budget hearing came when Emanuel was asked his take on cutting the number of aldermen in the City Council.
“Most of them are useless!” called out a bespectacled man in the audience near me.
“That’s right!” said a woman nodding her head several rows away.
Emanuel was noncommittal—a politically astute position for him to take, since it would be unseemly for the executive to lead an effort to reduce the size of the legislative branch, and since the large number of aldermen reduces the chances that any one of them will amass the power and popularity to challenge him.
The mayor did note that state law would have to be amended to cut the size of the council. He pointed out that the savings would only fill in a small part of the city’s budget hole—currently the entire council budget is about $25 million a year. "It wouldn't close a $637 million deficit," he said.
“But it would help!” said the woman.
The mayor said he understood the frustration. “We’re not done reforming the City Council,” he promised.