A small but influential group of Chicago alderpeople is plowing ahead with its proposal to reorganize and empower the City Council so that it will function independently from the next mayor. Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) have called a special City Council meeting for 9:30 a.m. Thursday to roll out their ideas.
The trio and their allies face stiff headwinds from nearly a dozen just-reelected alderpeople who have called on their colleagues to hold off on any changes until the new City Council is seated on May 15. Those detractors have since been joined by retiring Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), who told Crain’s the rapid reorganization move is “disrespectful;” Ald. David Moore (17th), who vowed to “blow…up” any quick adoption of rules; and by Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who in an interview Tuesday called the move a “desperate attempt for the people who support [outgoing Mayor] Lori Lightfoot to try to remain relevant.”
No matter when they make their final decision, alderpeople will contend with a swarm of new proposals claiming to make the City Council more effective, more efficient and to break it free from its decades-old reputation as a rubber stamp for the mayor’s agenda.
Harris, Waguespack and Villegas are proposing a mostly technical series of changes, including by codifying the word “alderperson” in the council’s rules of order and replacing all other gender-specific language.
Their most consequential change would be to balloon the number of City Council committees from 19 to 28, assuring that a majority of alderpeople has an opportunity to chair a body and move legislation. Proposed new committees include a Committee on Aging; a Committee on Tourism, Entertainment and Conventions; a Committee on Sanitation and Waste Management; and a Committee on Youth Services, among others.
No committee would be allowed to contain more than 13 members, meaning it would take just seven alderpeople to reach a quorum.
Earlier this month, Harris asked her colleagues to send her their preferences for committee memberships and chairmanships.
“This important initiative is about a stronger City Council, independent of whomever occupies the mayor’s office,” Harris wrote in her March 17 letter. “We are facing a unique moment in Chicago’s history to come together after more than 60 years and seize the opportunity to lead our city government into a new era of independence.”
Harris and her allies have promoted the expansion as a way to widen the City Council’s mandate to scrutinize city services, but some critics have panned the proposal, pointing to the fact that many existing committees rarely meet.
The agenda for Thursday’s meeting includes a “resolution establishing City Council Committee Chairs for the 2023-2027 term.” A spokesperson for Harris declined to provide details on the proposed chair assignments on Tuesday.
A City Council legal office
Proposals have been brewing since at least 2019 for the City Council to launch an independent legal counsel who could consult and represent alderpeople on the council floor. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she supports such an effort, but no proposal has made it to the legislative finish line.
Last spring, Beale and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) clashed over competing proposals to create a City Council legislative office and parliamentarian. The two later vowed to work together on a compromise proposal.
Lightfoot has since continued to preside over council meetings with the help of the city’s corporation counsel, frustrating Beale and other critics by wielding parliamentary tactics to shut them down.
Once his new colleagues are seated, Beale wants to “continue to work together” with Reilly to finalize a collective plan for a City Council legal office and parliamentarian, the Far South Side alderperson said.
“Any time an alderman has a serious question and wants some serious analysis, we should be able to walk into that office and get our answers and know that it won’t be reported back to any other aldermen or to the mayor’s office.”
More public transparency
The League of Women Voters of Chicago on Monday released a list of proposed tweaks to the City Council rules of order, most of which are aimed at making the council’s work more open and accessible to the public.
Their three-page list of proposed rule changes include a requirement for meeting notices and agendas to be posted four days’ in advance of meetings, double the existing two-day notice requirement. The advocacy group also wants committees to publish supporting documents like slideshows and briefing materials when they are distributed to alderpeople.
Many of the changes are modeled on existing practices by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, said Jane Ruby, president of the League of Women Voters of Chicago.
“The transparency we see out of Cook County doesn’t require a massive overhaul of the rules,” Ruby said. One easy change would be to widen the window for residents to submit written public comments so they don’t have to line up the morning of City Council meetings.
“We’re just talking about giving people more opportunities to participate and comment…so that they can feel like they’re included in the process,” Ruby said. “That’s an important relationship the City Council should be having with the people of Chicago.”
The League of Women Voters also wants the City Council to crack down on the use of Rules Committee referrals to bury unpopular legislation, and the group wants to add guardrails for the use of direct introductions. The league supported a proposal from Reilly last year to rein in the use of direct introductions. The measure failed amid opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but a version of the package has been baked into the rules package being proposed by Harris, Waguespack and Villegas.
The League of Women Voters has joined BGA Policy, which has submitted a separate City Council reform agenda, in calling on the council to wait until new members are seated before moving forward with rules changes.
Illinois Answers Project works independently and does not collaborate with BGA Policy.
Stronger partisan identification
Despite the widespread disagreement over how to reorganize the City Council, almost everyone involved in the process believes the city’s government will work better if the council is more powerful and unencumbered by the mayor.
David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor who studies local governments, disagrees.
“The City Council getting stronger could only be bad for Chicago,” Schleicher said in an interview Monday.
He argues that the mayor should own the responsibility for policymaking because the city’s chief executive is visible and accountable to the city’s voters, while “most people have no idea” who their alderpeople are. The result, he says, is City Council members who are only concerned about winning resources for their own wards without an incentive to pursue better governance for the whole city.
“They are very likely to involved into pork barrel insanity, and they’re very unlikely to be effectively monitored themselves by voters,” Schleicher said.
He said one solution could be for the City Council to more closely mirror U.S. Congress, where party structures push members to organize around partisan goals. As an example, Schleicher pointed to the city of Vancouver, where municipal candidates belong to unique local parties.
The Chicago City Council comprises about a half-dozen caucuses, but the groups are mostly non-ideological and internal working groups that shrink from the spotlight during elections.
“They should create centralizing institutions inside the council that cause them to make decisions at a citywide, rather than district-specific, level,” Schleicher said. “If they organize politically to be shaped around local cleavages in opinion — like the pro-police group and the pro-[teachers’ union] group — that would help people understand who they are, and those groups would have incentives to produce good outcomes.”