Chicago City Council Declares Its Independence — For Now — After Raucous Debate

An overwhelming majority of the Chicago City Council voted Thursday to declare its independence from whomever is elected the city’s 57th mayor in just five days, defying opposition from two leading organizations championing government reform after a raucous and at times profane debate.

Led by former allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the successful push to rewrite the rules for the City Council — which served as a rubber stamp for decades under Mayors Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel — is the result of years of effort to transform it into a legislative body determined to set policy for the entire city.

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Both candidates for mayor — Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson — have said they favor an independent City Council, empowered to legislate on behalf of the entire city.

But the lopsided vote came after hours of fierce debate that turned intensely personal, with accusations of vote buying and corruption flying fast and furious.

Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) — elected to a third term on the City Council last month without opposition — said supporters of the new rules ensured their passage by creating nine new committees, designed to encourage at least 28 alderpeople to support the package and give themselves a plum position of power that comes with an average budget of approximately $300,000.

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 coveted jobs from being awarded to friends and, in some cases, family members.

In an initial proposal, Moore was in line to chair a newly created Human Relations Committee. However, his opposition meant that gavel will now go to Ald. Monique Scott — assuming she wins on Tuesday against rival Creative Scott to hang on to the 24th Ward seat she was appointed to by Lightfoot.

Moore said he refused to trade his vote for a committee chairmanship.

“I ain’t no prostitute,” Moore said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) will be the second longest serving City Council member at the start of the council’s next term, but is not set to chair a committee — defying the City Council’s tradition of deferring to seniority.

“I am embarrassed to be a Chicagoan today,” Beale said. “You all should be embarrassed to call yourselves elected officials.”

While supporters of the push praised the proposal as a historic achievement that heralds a new era in Chicago politics, Ald. Nicolas Sposato (38th Ward) said he would vote against it because the outcomes of Tuesday’s runoffs are not yet known and 28 committees are too many for a 50-member body.

“This is as wrong as wrong could be,” Sposato said. “I’m baffled, I'm embarrassed.”

After Sposato completed his remarks, a visibly angry Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) confronted him, pointing his finger in Sposato’s face and looming over the Far Northwest Side alderperson who uses a wheelchair.

As Reilly was led away from Sposato by other members of the City Council, Sposato erupted in anger.

“That’s bulls---, I’m going to call bulls---,” Sposato yelled.

Lightfoot, who will leave office in 46 days and played only a ceremonial role during Thursday’s meeting, urged members of the City Council to show a “modicum of decorum.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) urged his colleagues to reject the proposal, urging them not to “stain their legacy.” Retiring Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) said the process of crafting the rules was “jacked up.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) also voted against the rules package, even though she is set to chair a new committee on youth services and has long championed a more independent City Council.

“Now y’all have grown some balls,” Taylor said. “This has been a circus, and we all look like clowns.”

Including Taylor, five Democratic Socialist members of the City Council are set to lead committees starting in May, a massive expansion of their already growing power at City Hall. Currently, no members of the Democratic Socialist Caucus are committee chairs.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward) called Thursday’s vote “symbolic,” noting that the new City Council will have to vote to ratify not only the rules, but also the committee structure, their leaders and their members.

Ramirez Rosa is set to lead the Housing Committee, while Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward) is set to lead the Health Committee and Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) is set to lead the Education Committee.

Those are committees of “substance and power,” Ramirez Rosa said.

“Our city is now in a better position to move forward on a progressive agenda,” Ramirez Rosa said.

It is not clear how much the nine new committees will cost to create. Creating new committees will allow alderpeople to “bring new focus” to neglected areas, said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), a close Lightfoot ally who is set to keep his powerful perch as Finance Committee chair under the new rules.

In all, Chicago’s 2023 budget earmarked $5.6 million for the operations of 19 City Council committees. Adding another nine committees would likely cost the city an additional $2.8 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 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.

“Having a robust legislature has a cost,” Ramirez Rosa said. “For too long, that capacity has only existed in the mayor’s office.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), the chair of the Black Caucus, said members of City Council will not only have to provide services to residents of their wards, like new garbage carts and pothole filling, but also demonstrate legislative leadership.

“I view this as a great challenge,” Ervin said. 

The City Council will no longer serve as a rubber stamp for any mayor, Ervin said.

“This city is extremely diverse,” Ervin said, adding it was time for the City Council to reflect that reality.

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

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.

In voting to approve the new rules, the City Council ignored opposition from the Better Government Association and League of Women Voters, which urged the City Council to wait until after Tuesday’s elections, which will decide who the next mayor is and who will represent 14 wards.

Both groups also objected changing the maximum size of most committees from 20 members to 11, which could allow legislation to be passed out of committee with as few as three votes.

The rules also 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 measure.

However, the new rules do 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 workaround 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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