Push to Make Chicago City Council More Independent Before New Mayor Takes Office Faces Key Vote

An effort designed to make the Chicago City Council more independent of whoever is elected the city’s 57th mayor is set for a key vote Thursday, even though it is not clear whether supporters of the push can overcome opposition from two leading organizations championing government reform.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward) called a special meeting of the Chicago City Council for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, invoking a little used provision of state law. The proposal – which has not yet been debated in public – could get a final vote on Thursday as part of supporters’ push for a quick vote before the runoff between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson set for April 4.

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Harris, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader and Rules Committee chair, endorsed Vallas after Lightfoot's defeat, while neither Waguespack nor Villegas has endorsed either candidate for mayor. Waguespack serves as Finance Committee chair and Villegas, who served as Lightfoot’s first floor leader before breaking with her, is chair of the Economic Development Committee.

Although City Council Black Caucus Chair Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward) backed the changes crafted by Harris, Waguespack and Villegas when they were introduced March 15, he did not sign the letter calling the City Council meeting, and did not respond requests for comment from WTTW News. Ervin backed Johnson for mayor after Lightfoot’s defeat.

Black Caucus member Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) has publicly announced he will oppose the change.

For decades, alderpeople allowed the mayor to hand-pick the chairs of the City Council’s committees, giving up power they have always had to curry favor with the mayor. That helped ensure that the mayor could speed favored legislation through the City Council by rewarding their friends and allies, and punishing their opponents.

That system broke down under Lightfoot, whose fractured relationships with even her closest allies severely limited her ability to get even routine matters through the City Council, much less significant pieces of legislation.

After Lightfoot became the first mayor in 40 years to lose a bid for reelection, a nascent effort to revise the City Council’s rules and allow it to operate as an independent legislative body took shape – even as Lightfoot’s allies dismissed suggestions they were acting to preserve their coveted perks before either Vallas or Johnson could send them packing.

In addition to changing the City Council’s rules to incorporate gender-neutral language, the new rules would create eight new committees, designed to encourage at least 27 alderpeople to support the package and give themselves a plum position of power that comes with an average budget of approximately $300,000. The rules need 26 votes to pass.

In all, Chicago’s 2023 budget earmarked $5.6 million for the operations of 19 City Council committees. Adding another eight committees would likely cost the city an additional $2.3 million at a time when the city’s budget forecast estimates a shortfall of at least $473.5 million in 2024.

Seven of the City Council’s 19 committees met four times or fewer in 2022, according to City Council records. Of those committees, just two advanced significant pieces of legislation.

The Immigrant and Refugee Rights Committee, chaired by retiring Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), did not hold a single meeting in 2022, despite having a budget of $120,465 at a time when the city faced a crisis with the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Texas and other states, records show.

The Ethics, Education and Environmental Protection committees have been without leadership for months after the resignation of several alderpeople. Only the Ethics Committee advanced a significant piece of legislation in 2022.

Former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found that several of the most powerful members of the Chicago City Council used employees of the City Council committees they led to perform work in their wards, a potential violation of state law, according to a 2021 audit.

The flexible budgets of City Council committees have long been a coveted perk for some of Chicago’s most powerful politicians, allowing them to hire political supporters without running afoul of rules that normally prohibit plum jobs from being awarded to friends and, in some cases, family members.

That practice also may “create inequities between wards by effectively giving some aldermen disproportionally more resources for their non-committee work,” according to the audit.

If the new rules are approved Thursday, it will be before at least a dozen new members of the City Council take office May 15, and less than a week before the outcome of 14 City Council races are decided on April 4. Any rules approved Thursday would have to be reapproved by the City Council after the new term starts, and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) urged her colleagues to wait until then to decide the matter.

“Rushing this parliamentary maneuver prior to the voters of Chicago expressing their choice of leadership (aldermanic and mayoral) for the next term is neither fair nor respectful of the Democratic process,” according to a letter sent by Dowell and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) to their colleagues.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward), chair of the City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus and a member of the Progressive Caucus, said any new structure for the City Council should reflect the city's ideological, geographic and racial diversity. The next City Council will be younger, have more Latina members and be more progressive, Ramirez Rosa said.

In the race for mayor, Ramirez Rosa and Dowell are backing Johnson, while Hopkins is backing Vallas.

The push also faces opposition from the League of Women Voters and the Better Government Association, which have worked together to urge the City Council to operate more independently and more transparently.

“Ramming rules through without public input and enough time for anyone to see the proposal and make well thought out comments and suggestions will not serve the city of Chicago any better than with the current system we have now,” said Bryan Zarou, director of policy for the Better Government Association.

The groups also objected to the proposal to reduce the maximum size of most committees from 20 members to 13, which could allow legislation to be passed out of committee with as few as four votes.

“Allowing newly-elected members to participate fully and ensuring that all new proposals have a substantive public discussion prior to any final vote will help ensure that a more independent City Council is also one committed to reform and deserving of the public trust,” according to the statement from the Better Government Association and League of Women Voters.

The proposed rules would limit the ability of the City Council to vote on matters on an expedited basis by requiring a “statement of urgency explaining the nature of the emergency in detail.” All matters, except those deemed noncontroversial and routine, must be posted “no less than 48 hours before” a committee vote and shared with “all members of the City Council along with an impartial and unbiased summary of the matter,” according to the proposal.

However, the proposed rules would not prevent members of the City Council from sending proposals they oppose to the Rules Committee, where controversial ordinances often languish for months before dying a slow, unremarkable death. But the new rules would prohibit measures from being advanced that are substantially similar to those consigned to legislative limbo, a work around Lightfoot and her allies used several times.

The structure of Chicago's government requires the mayor to propose a budget, which would determine whether any new committees formed by the City Council are funded by the city's budget. In addition, the mayor could veto the rules, and force the City Council to marshal at least 34 votes to override his objections.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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