Chicago’s City Council has earned a reputation over the decades as a “rubber stamp” for the mayor’s policies — a perfunctory pit stop before prebaked policies receive near-unanimous approval on the floor of the City Council. The dubious distinction has been reinforced by reports that many committees rarely met under the council’s previous term.
Mayor Brandon Johnson continued the tradition of hand-picking City Council committee chairs, prompting some cynicism that a recent push to turn the council into an independent policymaking body had fizzled.
Many of the new committee chairs have other ideas.
Illinois Answers Project spoke with the eight alderpeople who were elected to second terms this year and are now helming committees for the first time. The chairs, who are all members of the City Council Democratic Socialist Caucus or Progressive Caucus, said they want to use their power to help guide the direction of citywide policy.
This week, Illinois Answers is publishing interviews with four council members, who shared their short- and long-term plans as well as how they hope to wield their gavels differently than their predecessors. Their responses were edited for length and clarity.
Part 2: Read interviews here with Alds. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (Housing Committee), Jeanette Taylor (Education), Andre Vasquez (Immigrant & Refugee Rights) and Maria Hadden (Environment).
Ald. Matt Martin — Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight
Martin (47th) divided his near-term goals into “three buckets.”
“One is that I want to be in the regular habit of having subject matter hearings about important [inspector general] reports that come out, whether it’s their quarterly filing or individual pieces that are of particular significance. My hope is that we can get something close to a monthly cadence of meetings in place. If our great inspector general’s office is doing the important work of figuring out where there are issues, we should be able to figure out what the next steps are.
“The second area is to look at some modest changes to the city’s lobbying regulations involving nonprofits. It’s something that’s not being enforced right now because of issues [with a recent change in policy] that have been flagged by nonprofits, so we need to do some cleanup there. I also want to work on tightening up the portion of the municipal code that concerns the selection of the inspector general. We had a vacancy that lasted much longer than it should have, and we should fix that moving forward.
“The third bucket of items are things that might be of more significance, like the legislation I introduced last term around publicly financed elections. And that’s something that won’t get taken up and passed in a month — it’s going to take some time. But I think it’s something the committee is well positioned to take on.”
From earlier this year: Moment of Truth for the City Council Ethics Committee
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez — Committee on Health and Human Relations
Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said she wants to convene regular meetings on legislation that she and her allies want to see developed for the whole city.
“My main issue is [the] Treatment Not Trauma [ordinance proposal], which is a comprehensive piece of legislation that is going to take some time to figure out, so it will probably be done in phases and take a lot of research and negotiations. We’re going to need multiple hearings to hear from experts and talk about best practices.
“There’s a lot of other [proposals] we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to discuss, like Peace Book, public bathrooms, Indigenous People’s Day, and we want to be able to discuss the report from the commission on monuments. The Healthy Homes pilot [for proactive building safety inspections] is also going to be an important thing we’re going to need to figure out how to do.
“I also want the committee to be focused on public education and making sure people understand what’s happening every day, what the process is for getting a proposal to the committee, how to provide feedback and public comment. I want to make sure there’s a website where people can go to make sure they know where legislation is. I want to go to schools and talk to civics students about how they can participate.
“I want to have more frequent meetings, for sure. There are so many committees that didn’t meet a lot last term, and it felt like instead of being a vehicle for progress, they were an obstacle.”
Ald. Daniel La Spata — Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety
La Spata (1st) said the committee’s first meeting under his watch, which involved a June 14 subject matter hearing on the upcoming NASCAR event around Grant Park, showed the potential for the committee to expand its mandate beyond the hundreds of routine permit ordinances it passes each month.
“The committee has an expanded jurisdiction over regulating vehicular, biking and pedestrian traffic, parking, highways, and on and on.
“We have Ald. [Gilbert] Villegas’ sidewalk plow pilot ordinance in the committee now, and we’re excited to move forward with that. I definitely want to help [the Chicago Department of Transportation] in exploring and expanding their automated [bike lane blocking] enforcement pilot in the downtown area. And then there are ideas that have not yet been shaped into ordinances, like the Bike Grid Now campaign, and thinking about how that can go from a great idea to something that we’ve actually operationalized.
“It would be a beautiful goal to say that we’ve cut traffic fatalities in half over the next four years. Let’s speak that into existence.”
Ald. Michael Rodriguez — Committee on Workforce Development
Rodriguez (22nd) praised the work of his predecessor, retired Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), but said the committee needs to keep pressing forward to advance labor rights in Chicago.
“Out the gate, I’m prioritizing paid leave and a rideshare ordinance to make life better for Uber and Lyft drivers.
“We have an opportunity to revisit the city’s 2017 paid sick leave law and consider expanding its coverage to support all working people. We’re looking at getting away from ‘sick’ and having it cover paid time off, potentially by looking at hours that workers can accumulate to earn time off. We want to right-size it to today’s economy, expanding workers’ rights.
“Chicago is behind other cities like New York, Portland and Seattle on establishing minimum pay for rideshare workers. I introduced an ordinance last month that would do three things: increase minimum pay, address the share of surge pricing that goes to drivers, and reform the deactivation process to make sure workers have a way to appeal and get back on the app if they were deactivated.
“We’re also trying to focus on workforce development programs that focus on communities that have been beset by violence or poverty and figuring out ways to highlight things that are working so we can get our young people into good-paying careers.
“I’m a supporter of the One Fair Wage Campaign [to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers]. We will see how that moves through the City Council. But regardless of the way it moves, I will be a supporter.”