As she drove through her South Side ward one morning last month, Alderman Pat Dowell slowed up alongside a business on the corner of Prairie Avenue and 51st Street. The owners of the business wanted to hang a sign on the Prairie side of the building, “but I’d rather not have it on a residential street,” said Dowell, who has led the 3rd Ward since 2007. In her view, the sign would need to be on 51st, like the other signs on the block, so the area had a consistent look.
She saw it as an example of why she and her 49 City Council colleagues have so much power over their wards, down to their alleys and sidewalks.
Residents “need to have a go-to person, someone you can expect to address your issue,” Dowell said. “That person needs to be on the ground with you.”
From 2011 through 2018, Dowell was the chief sponsor of more than 900 separate ordinances in the City Council, most of them pertaining to such hyperlocal issues as business sign permits, driveway alley access and parking meter hours for single addresses or blocks.
That volume of ward-specific legislation is typical for Chicago aldermen. Dowell and others have fought for more oversight of city government. But the city’s legislative branch is largely consumed with processing small-bore and neighborhood administrative matters, with few aldermen taking the lead on issues beyond their ward boundaries, a ProPublica Illinois analysis of more than 100,000 pieces of legislation has found.
The structure of the council has received new attention over the last several months, as the city’s political establishment has been rocked by scandals involving aldermen. In January, federal prosecutors charged Ed Burke, the council dean and Finance Committee chair, with trying to shake down a Burger King franchisee that needed building and driveway permits for a restaurant in his Southwest Side ward. Burke has said he is not guilty.
That was followed by reports that council Zoning Committee chair Danny Solis wore a wire to record conversations with Burke while Solis himself was under investigation for alleged corruption, including trading political favors for sex. Another retiring alderman, former police officer Willie Cochran, is slated to go on trial this year after being charged with extorting businesses in his ward that needed his support for development projects and licenses.
In response, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and candidates in the Feb. 26 election to replace him have proposed a series of ethics reforms.
But tinkering with some of the official rules of the council is unlikely to alter the way it works. That’s because it functions within a political structure that has become ingrained over decades, partly through favor-trading.
At the height of Chicago’s Democratic machine in the 1950s and ’60s, aldermen and ward bosses had patronage workers, known as precinct captains, who helped provide residents with garbage cans, tree trimming and other services. The residents were then expected to vote for favored candidates.
The current arrangement, said Scott Waguespack, alderman of the North Side’s 32nd Ward, is “just a little more sophisticated than the garbage can version.”
Except in rare instances, the City Council signs off on the mayor’s agenda, even letting the city’s executive pick its legislative leaders. In return, aldermen are allowed to reign over matters large and small in their wards, which some openly describe as “fiefdoms.” Businesses and residents have to call on their aldermen for help getting many city services they pay for with their taxes.
Legislative records, available through the online legislative information center maintained by the City Clerk’s office, show how the system works. From May 2011, when Emanuel was inaugurated, through the end of 2018:
- More than 75,000 proposed ordinances and orders were introduced to the council, an average of about 800 a month. Ordinances are local laws, while orders are binding dictates to other city departments.
- The council passed more than 90 percent of them.
- Most of the introduced ordinances pertained to single addresses or blocks, such as more than 8,800 ordinances authorizing specific sidewalk cafe permits and 3,500 for particular loading zones.
- In contrast, less than 10 percent of ordinances pertained to city budgets, taxes, contracts or citywide laws.
- The most active and powerful citywide legislator was the city’s top executive, Emanuel. He served as the chief sponsor of more citywide ordinances (about 2,700) than all the aldermen combined (about 2,100).
A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment. Aldermen, who are paid between $108,000 and $120,000 a year, say they’re doing the job residents demand of them.
“People think we have control over everything,” said Roderick Sawyer, chairman of the council’s Black Caucus and alderman of the 6th Ward on the South Side.
One morning last month, Sawyer and his chief of staff, Winston McGill, drove around the ward checking on trouble spots and constituent issues, from illegal dumping to problem businesses to parking concerns.
Sawyer pulled over next to a church on 71st Street and Union Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood. One of the church’s leaders had called his office to complain that a no-parking sign had just been posted on a stretch of the street where members had parked on Sundays for years. After taking a look, Sawyer didn’t see the need for the restriction. The sign was later removed.
A few minutes later, they stopped on the 6600 block of South Harvard Avenue. McGill noted that only a couple of cars were parked on the street at that time of day, yet some residents had asked to restrict the block to permit-only parking.
Sawyer was skeptical. He shook his head and laughed. “You see all the stuff we deal with as aldermen? You have to manage all these egos.”
Joe Moore, alderman of the far North Side’s 49th Ward since 1991, said the system helps residents get access to city services.
“We’ve always kind of done it this way,” Moore said. “You make us full-time legislators and we lose that hands-on approach. A little decentralization is not a bad thing. At a time people [when] feel very disengaged from politics and government, this grassroots style of governing does have its benefits.”
On a recent afternoon, Moore met with police leaders at the 24th District station to talk about several blocks in Rogers Park with safety issues. Back at his office, Moore sat down with a former neighborhood resident who asked for help with an area storage facility where his musical equipment had been stolen. Then residents of a nearby apartment building for seniors came in to talk with the alderman and an official from the Chicago Housing Authority about its plans for the property.
Aldermen do propose important legislation, Moore noted, such as an ordinance passed in 2015 that set aside $5.5 million to pay reparations to victims of police torture.
But since aldermen serve primarily as ward housekeepers, the pipeline of legislation at City Hall is cluttered with ordinances for permits and other single-address regulations.
Committee chairs and aldermen of downtown and North Side wards with busy commercial areas introduce the most legislation. They also tend to receive steady campaign contributions, including from people and businesses that need their help.
From 2011 through 2018, Brendan Reilly, alderman of downtown’s 42nd Ward, ranked first in sponsoring legislation. He introduced more than 8,500 ordinances; all but about 100 involved permits, traffic and other local matters.
Reilly said his office has to review so many permits and ordinances that he raised campaign funds to hire five extra staff members in addition to the three already paid for by the city budget.
That’s not an ideal situation, since it means privately paid workers are doing public work. In 2016, an aide paid out of Reilly’s campaign funds resigned after media reports revealed that her consulting firm had also lobbied for developers. Reilly said none of that work involved projects in the 42nd Ward.
Though his office speeds through “99 percent” of permit applications and renewals, the other 1 percent require a closer look, perhaps because the applicants haven’t complied with the terms of their permit, or they haven’t been good neighbors, he said.
Reilly said he’s all for streamlining permit renewals or taking some of the administrative work out of aldermen’s offices.
“But there would be pushback from residents,” Reilly said. “Just short of blaming aldermen for the weather, we’re expected to be accountable for everything else in the ward.”
While aldermen are focused on ward issues, Chicago mayors have seized control of the legislative and oversight process at City Hall.
As in Congress and other lawmaking bodies, legislation introduced to the City Council is typically assigned to a committee before it goes before the whole. The council has 16 committees, covering areas from aviation to zoning. Under the council’s own rules, aldermen are supposed to determine their own committee assignments and leadership.
But that’s not how it works. Dating back at least to the tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley from 1955 to 1976, the mayor has taken control of picking committee chairs and assignments.
First-term Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said Burke asked him and other freshmen to fill out a form listing their committee preferences during an orientation session the council dean led in 2015. Ramirez-Rosa, alderman of the Logan Square-based 35th Ward, didn’t get any of his picks.
Instead, Ramirez-Rosa ended up on committees that rarely meet, like Health and Environmental Protection, and some that do little but sign off on ward-level legislation, like Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.
“All we’re doing is rubber-stamping what colleagues have put together,” he said.
In contrast, Moore serves on the powerful Finance and Budget committees. For 20 years, when he regularly criticized former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Moore was largely shut out of power. But after he allied himself with Emanuel in 2011, the mayor picked him to lead the Human Relations Committee. Four years ago, Moore received a promotion of sorts by being named chair of the Housing Committee, which has a larger staff and budget.
By deferring to the mayor to pick committee chairs, aldermen have made the process of picking their leaders easier, Moore joked. “You only had to lobby one person instead of the whole council,” he said.
Alderman George Cardenas of the 12th Ward, chair of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, has helped pass ordinances pushed by Emanuel to crack down on illegal dumping and the use of dangerous chemicals in dry cleaning.
But Emanuel has repeatedly nixed proposals from Cardenas. Among them: a 2012 resolution calling for hearings on the health impacts of sugary beverages and the possibility of taxing them. Cardenas said he just wanted to start a conversation, given the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Aides to the mayor told him not to hold the hearings, Cardenas said. “The administration didn’t think it was the right time,” he said, especially since the soft drink industry was against it.
Instead, a few months later, in November 2012, Emanuel announced that the Coca-Cola Foundation would donate $3 million to fund health programs in the city. Subsequent donations from Coca-Cola have funded improvements in city parks.
Cardenas said aldermen need to pick their own committee chairs, perhaps based on seniority, to allow them to be more independent.
“For the last five mayors, the mayor handled it because the aldermen gave it away,” he said.
One of the most powerful council posts is the chair of the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics. Under council rules, the chair has the power to decide where to send each piece of introduced legislation. In 2013, Emanuel chose Michelle Harris, alderman of the South Side’s 8th Ward, for the job.
Since then, Harris has held dozens of pieces of legislation in the committee without bringing them up for a vote, including proposals for ethics training for city contractors; additional oversight of the city’s investments; and a plan to livestream committee hearings.
“Michelle Harris is [Emanuel’s] workhorse to stop legislation,” Waguespack said. “It boils down to her doing the bidding of the mayor, and the mayor having a policy that’s essentially, kill anything that would challenge his or Burke’s authority.”
Asked about getting direction from the mayor, Harris said she sometimes acts as a “go between” during negotiations with aldermen. But she said the fate of legislation depends on whether supporters can show her they have the votes before their public meetings. Harris noted that under council rules, aldermen can undertake a multi-step process to force legislation out of a committee if 26 of them back it.
Still, she said, she prefers an “informal” approach to determining when legislation has support. “I’d rather sit down and talk about it,” she said.
Other aldermen say taxpayers deserve a more open process.
“It would seem to me that she supports an approach to government that’s done in a back room,” 45th Ward Alderman John Arena said. “There’s an attitude among some that you only put it forward in committee if it’s going to pass. Whereas we think you put forward ideas and you discuss them, and it might take two meetings to pass because the whole point is to go over issues.”
Both the size and priorities of Chicago’s City Council are unusual. New York City has a 51-member council — the only one from a major city that’s comparable in size to Chicago’s. New York also has more than three times the population. While its council members provide constituent services, they spend considerable time and political capital on oversight of the mayor and city departments, said Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University. For example, the New York City Council holds budget hearings every six months that often result in significant changes.
“In that way, they’re almost an equal partner to the mayor,” Berg said. Since New York council members are limited to two consecutive four-year terms, “it gives members the incentive to make a splash while they’re there.”
In Chicago, Budget Committee chair Carrie Austin oversees two weeks of public hearings each year on the budgets proposed by the mayor. For three decades, the mayors’ budgets have passed the council overwhelmingly, usually with only minor tweaks.
But Austin said aldermen do vet the mayor’s budgets and other legislation, though it usually happens in closed-door meetings.
“By the time it goes to the committee or the council, we’ve worked out the kinks,” Austin said.
Aldermen know that their work in the council is not their top priority, added Austin, who has represented the 34th Ward on the far South Side since 1994, when Daley appointed her to finish the term of her late husband.
“The things we do down here, they’re important,” Austin said, “but not as important as what’s going on in the ward.”