Emanuel, O'Connor and the new council committees

May 20, 2011

Ald. Patrick O'Connor

Except for the stripping of powers from Ald. Edward Burke (14th), there was no substantive change at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first City Council meeting. But that little move was pretty significant.

Sure, there was lots of symbolism: The new City Clerk read the roll call as the first woman elected to the task. An African-American woman was named President pro Tempore of the council. A Latino was named vice-mayor.

Burke and Emanuel laughed and whispered and played buddies and, at the end of the day, Burke got the keep the Finance Committee chairmanship -- but without its previous jurisdiction over union contracts, city benefits, privatization of city services, pensions, business taxes and audits. He did keep some important things, significantly bonds, and he’ll have plenty to play with if he decides to mess with Emanuel, but let’s be frank, there’s simply no incentive for him to do so.

The aldermen understand the future is up in the mayor’s chair, lean and mean and young – not to mention doubly endowed with campaign cash. Burke would probably not have much luck fomenting revolt; he knows Emanuel can swing them without too much effort. Note that all the aldermen – even Rick Muñoz (22nd), a dissenter Emanuel’s not trying too hard to woo – signed on to the new committee arrangement.

But let’s not make too much of the council re-arrangement – except for the procedures put in place aimed at restricting Burke. In other words, the ethics ordinances designed to illuminate the new mayor’s expectations and the new, mega committee created especially for his floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th). (Except for Finance and the new committee, the duties of the other committees have not been spelled out in detail.)

Emanuel eliminated the committees on Rules, Energy/Environment/Public Utilities, Historical Landmark Preservation, Parks and Recreation, Police and Fire, dropped the words Real Estate from the Housing Committee’s name and added Public Way to the Transportation Committee’s. On paper, he created two new committees, Public Safety and Workforce Development and Audit – but the former has Police and Fire’s old duties and the latter -- Emanuel’s real power move -- takes nearly all of Finance’s most significant powers and puts them in O’Connor’s hands.

Until this week, The City Council has had 19 committees with virtually no change for 20 years, since 1991, when Mayor Richard M. Daley won his first full term.

Daley reduced Harold Washington’s 28 committees, which were themselves a rollback of the 37 committees created by Burke and former Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (14th) to obstruct Washington during 1984 to 1986, Washington’s first years as mayor.

During that tumultuous time, the council had committees on all sorts of things, including Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, Animal Treatment and Control, Cable TV, Municipal Code Revision, Municipal Institutions, Neighborhood and Community Affairs, and Public Records and Information. Each committee had its own offices and staff, a colossal and cavalier waste of money, and time too, since many overlapped with already existing city departments.

It was then that Burke got Finance for the first time. It was temporarily taken from him in 1987 when Washington won a majority, but he got it back, seemingly forever, when Daley became mayor.

A recent Reader story looked at who actually passes substantive laws in the council and found that it came down to Burke and the former mayor. If O’Connor takes over that duty from Burke as well, we’ll know the change is real.

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