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Have you ever sat in on a Chicago City Council meeting? The experience is strangely fascinating, at times maddening, and—if you care about good governance—downright depressing.
Each month, the 50 aldermen who make up the council (though not all 50 always show up) file into a red-carpeted room on the second floor of City Hall and sink into high-backed leather chairs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands before them, elevated on a dais between two towering slabs of marble, like a lord addressing his serfs. While the mayor isn’t a voting member of the council (unless there is a tie vote, which rarely happens), inexplicably he runs the meeting.
When the aldermen aren’t chitchatting, texting, or wandering around as if a meeting isn’t taking place, grandstanding is the order of the day. Those who try to take the committee reports and other proceedings seriously, say several frustrated independent-minded aldermen, are constantly chided by their colleagues. It’s like the high-school jocks hazing the nerds.
The agenda is driven by the mayor, and it’s tightly scripted, filled with rote bureaucratic work (such as approving a slew of permits for awnings and driveway extensions) and debates over relatively unimportant topics (such as the dangers of energy drinks and bedbugs). Given the longtime severity of Chicago’s gang problem, you’d think that the council would be consumed by weighty gun violence issues. But a mere 1 percent of items before its public safety committee, which first considers proposed crime-related ordinances, had anything to do with crime or violence, according to an analysis by the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit research organization funded by the Ford Foundation, which looked at the committee’s legislative actions from 2006 to 2009.
When it comes time for a vote, the typical alderman switches to zombie mode: Do whatever the mayor wants. By the time 2012 drew to a close, Emanuel had racked up 1,333 “yes” votes to 112 “nos,” and he has never lost a vote on the floor. The council has crossed Emanuel exactly once, in a February 2013 vote on his ethics proposal—which toughened the provisions for the inspector general to oversee the aldermen. Members of the council’s rules committee voted 25–3 to table the proposal. Still, the mayor largely prevailed: Days later, the full council passed a watered-down version of the ordinance.
This state of affairs is disappointing, given that several aldermen had proclaimed that without Richard M. Daley riding herd, the council would finally rouse itself from its 22-year slumber and start acting like the legislative branch the law empowers it to be. No more unanimous budget votes. No more genuflecting to Dear Leader on the council floor. No more godforsaken parking meter deals. Back in February 2011, Emanuel told reporters that he too wanted a strong City Council. “[Aldermen] cannot be a rubber stamp,” he said at his first press conference as mayor-elect. “That’s unacceptable. They can’t be what they were in the last few years. They don’t want it. The city doesn’t want it. . . . I don’t want it.”
So why is it still happening?
For many of the same reasons it happened under Daley, as it turns out. Despite Emanuel’s press conference proclamation, he has wound up using a series of time-honored political strategies to gain firm control of the council. (Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this story.) Those strategies include threats, humiliation, and intimidation (such as planting unflattering stories in the media); information hoarding that keeps aldermen ignorant and subservient; and—perhaps the most effective strategy of all—letting aldermen cede power of their own accord in their desire to please the big cheese. Old habits, after all, are hard to break.
The fact that the council is complicit in its own relative powerlessness should bother you. A lot. After all, your quality of life depends on what the council does: The aldermen, along with the mayor, determine your property taxes, your water bills, the hours of your neighborhood library, even your parking rates. The whole point of having a legislative body is to provide a check to the power of the executive branch. But Emanuel is “surrounded by people who tell him he’s got the best ideas in the world. . . . [There is] no one in his inner circle to say he’s wrong,” says Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and himself a former alderman.
So when disastrous ideas come around—like leasing the city’s parking meters to a banking consortium for 75 years without anyone vetting the contract—they pass with flying colors. And Chicagoans pay the price.
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