Chicago budget hearings: Some aldermen super chatty, some totally silent in annual hearings

Looking to last year's hearings for insight into how aldermen will grill city officials this year.

October 11, 2012

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(Flickr/mason.flickr)

Let the questions begin!  Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined his new budget proposal.  Now, Chicago aldermen get their chance. Beginning next week, aldermen can get Emanuel’s top staff on the record, about the budget and also about city services.

At last year’s hearings, some aldermen took advantage of the opportunity, while others kept silent.

'Can you kind of wrap your story up?'

We know how this goes: The mayor proposes a budget, a few aldermen complain, some changes get made and then the council approves the budget.

But along the way, there’s a whole lot of talking: about layoffs, taxes, tree trimmers, garbage pick-up, whatever. Aldermen toss many, many questions at city department heads during hearings in the council chamber.

"I don’t get it - where are the savings?" Ald. Latasha Thomas asked the streets and sanitation commissioner last October, regarding a grid system for garbage pickup.

"We may have a political issue with those," Ald. Ed Burke told Emanuel's budget team, referencing the increased costs that churches and church schools would have to pay for water and sewer service.

"I’m trying to do this in a nice way. You’re making it really hard," Ald. Leslie Hairston said while questioning the head of the city's 9-1-1 center.

"Can you answer my question?" Ald. Jason Ervin said with annoyance to the streets and sanitation commissioner.

The questions do get feisty sometimes, but many of them are dull and redundant. It's the long-winded ones that get the budget committee chair, Ald. Carrie Austin, most annoyed at the hearings.

Austin told Ervin during one hearing, "I know you’re used to all those elaborate, long, drawn-out dissertations on one questions on one question." She asked Ald. Dick Mell, "Can you kind of wrap your story up?" And she scolded Ald. Joe Moore, "You do want an answer, right? Okay, let her answer instead of going on and on."

Use your words

Austin is from the Far South Side, and has chaired the budget committee for 5 years with a quick wit and a close eye on the clock.

In an interview this past summer, she talked about how important it is ("extemely," she replied) for aldermen to take advantage of their allotted time to publicly question city officials, especially to follow-up on any concerns they raised earlier in the year that the Emanuel administration ignored.

"So you get a chance again to say, ‘I gave you a question da-da-da-da-date, and time. I had a constituent to do this-thus-and-so, and this is what you’ve done,'" Austin said.

One alderman who asked no questions was Rick Munoz from the Southwest Side. In last year’s budget hearings, Munoz was called on just once, during the first hearing of the budget season. He didn’t say anything in that hearing or in any of the 35 hearings with city officials, according to transcripts kept by the budget committee.

When I asked Munoz why he was silent, he was stumped - at first.

"I don’t remember," Munoz said. "That’s just all a big blur."

A bit later, he offered this explanation:

"I remember attending the hearings, and I remember most of my questions already being answered," Munoz said.

Munoz was campaigning at the time in a failed bid for Cook County Clerk of Court. But he denied that the politicking distracted him.

"No, not all, because we were still very involved in the whole budget process," he said.

Just not in public. Another quiet alderman was JoAnn Thompson from the South Side. Thompson did speak at the budget hearing for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, but it was more of a social call.

"Actually, I don’t have any questions, but I want to take this opportunity to thank the commissioner for all the help he’s given me," Thompson said at the hearing.

Keeping private chats very private

When aldermen ask questions in public, you get an idea of what changes they want to the budget, what issues they’re working on. They do it to drum up some publicity - maybe - but also to make sure they're comments and the adminsitrations responses are on the record.

We don’t know what Thompson was lobbying for last year, because it happened off-the-record, in private talks with city officials.

"It’s easier to sit down and it’s more in a relaxed atmosphere, that I can ask all the questions that I want to ask, and I’m not bound by time," she told me.

When I asked her what topics she raised in those meetings, Thompson refused to answer.

"I’d rather keep my questions to myself," she said.

'Sometimes I have a temper'

West Side Ald. Michael Chandler did tell me some of the issues he had with the budget last year. He worried about water costs for churches and charities...and also questioned the higher prices for vehicle stickers.

But not once did Chandler talk about these things at the budget hearings.

"You know, sometimes I have a temper," Chandler explained. "I don’t want to go off on the city council floor, necessarily. When I wake up in the morning I’ll say a prayer, so I come back here and I’ll ask somebody a question and we’ll work it through."

It’s not just generally low-profile aldermen like Chandler who prefer private negotiations. The mayor’s floor leader, Ald. Pat O’Connor, made substantive statements at just two budget hearings last year. Of course, he had a lot of behind-the-scenes involvement.

One of the most frequent yappers was Ald. Tim Cullerton. The Northwest Sider was actively involved in 24 of the hearings. Cullerton has been on both sides of the budget process. As a former top official in the buildings department, he used to answer to aldermen.

"They’re asking questions, they’re probing, they’re challenging," Cullerton said. "And, you know, the more questions asked, the better. I mean, that’s the way I look at it, because we’re spending the taxpayers’ money."

Bedtime reading

Using the Freedom of Information Act, we requested the transcripts from all the budget hearings. These transcripts aren’t available on the city’s website, but we’ve posted them below.

So, as Mayor Emanuel’s department heads make promises to aldermen this year, you can see what they promised last year.

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