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Photo by Manuel Martinez, WBEZ

Some of the most powerful Chicago aldermen show up to work the least

Virtual public meetings and better systems of accountability have sharply boosted aldermanic attendance rates at City Council meetings since 2019, according to a joint analysis by The Daily Line, WBEZ and Crain’s Chicago Business. The average Chicago alderman showed up to do the work of the City Council about four out of every five times they were required to since the start of the term in May 2019.

The B average still represents hundreds of absences from City Council committees, when aldermen debate and approve the rules, taxes and fees that Chicagoans must live by and pay. Every time the city approves new spending, a stop sign, a six-figure legal settlement or a zoning change for a new development, it has to pass through one of the City Council’s 19 committees first.

And while some aldermen brush it off, spotty attendance can make or break critical legislation. During a January meeting of the City Council Finance Committee, city attorneys had to shelve a $125,000 payment that would have settled a lawsuit with Lenora Bonds, a woman who sued the city after her son was shot to death by Chicago police in 2013. Not enough aldermen showed up to vote “aye” on the proposal, sending city attorneys back to the bargaining table with Bonds.

An attorney for Bonds did not respond to requests for comment.

Though this is a midterm progress report covering two-and-a-half years, the City Council’s average attendance score of nearly 86% is a sharp jump from the term that ended in 2019, when a similar analysis of those four years found the average alderman showed up to just 64% of meetings (that 2019 tally has been adjusted from 65% based on revised calculations).

The improvement was driven in part by new policies put in place to track and publicly report attendance at committee meetings, which the council only instituted after WBEZ sued a committee chairwoman in 2019 for her failure to produce responsive records confirming regular attendance was being taken. Committee chairmen are now required to take roll at the beginning of each meeting and post those reports with the city clerk at the end of the month.

Read more: We ranked City Council members by meeting attendance. Check your alderman’s score.

More than a half-dozen senior aldermen with poor or middling attendance records also were unseated in 2019 by younger members, some of whom attacked the incumbent by pointing to the low score WBEZ and The Daily Line had calculated. And the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most meetings into cyberspace in 2020, making it easier for aldermen to log their presence. About two-thirds of the meetings this term have been held over Zoom.

While attendance improved overall, scores varied widely. The poorest records were held by some of the most senior members, including a few who will be asking voters for promotions this year.

Virtual meetings made a big difference for some

Several aldermen, such as No. 2 ranking Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, say the ability to meet virtually helped improve their attendance.

Hairston, whose ward includes parts of Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore, closed out the last term near the bottom of the list, attributing her absences then to the work she was doing on a high-profile development in her ward, the Obama Presidential Center.

Chicago Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, attends a City Council meeting

Chicago Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, attends a City Council meeting in September 2019. She ranked second among all aldermen when it came to meeting attendance.

Manuel Martinez

“It’s the nature of virtual meetings,” Hairston said. “Last time, you know, trying to put together the Obama Presidential Center, the community meetings, everything, sometimes it was not possible to be down here. With the virtual, then I can be there.”

With a 98% attendance rate, Hairston had the second-best attendance record. But she’s also only a member of four committees, putting nearly 200 total meetings on her plate during that period — fewer than many other aldermen. It’s a significant data point that her lower-ranked colleagues — such as Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward — are quick to point out.

“Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m on eight committees. I am one person,” said Harris, whose ward is on the city’s Far South Side. Harris is also chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee, tasked with getting a consensus on the once in a decade process of drafting a new ward map. “I stretched myself to the limit. For me, even with Zoom, it’s been a little difficult with all the meetings all the time.”

Read more: Conducting City Council meetings virtually has its perks — but is the practice worth keeping?

The number of committees and subcommittees has grown in recent years under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership. Several of these newly formed bodies rarely meet, despite the benefit of six-figure budgets. The number of commitments also varies by alderman, as each is assigned to bodies that oversee different corners of city government.

No one had to attend more meetings than Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, who had to balance his City Council obligations with the added commitment of serving on the Chicago Plan Commission, a city planning board, and Choose Chicago, a quasi-public-private partnership focused on boosting tourism. Burnett attended 320 of the 359 meetings he was supposed to attend, or about 89%, beating the City Council average.

Burnett says prioritizing which meetings and mayoral press conferences to attend is a challenge.

“Plan commission goes on all day… While I’m at the planning commission, this committee meeting is going on,” Burnett said, pointing out with a laugh that he agrees with the City Council’s most prolific public commenter, George Blakemore, who “complained about how we have all these meetings at the same time, he can’t go to all of them.”

But the rise in virtual meetings has almost eliminated the problem of rampant double-booking, in which several committee meetings started at the same time, forcing aldermen to oscillate between meeting rooms during critical votes. That was a major concern raised by aldermen during the prior analysis.

Poor attendance still common among council veterans

Still, one theme remains the same since the 2019 analysis: Younger, newer aldermen were far more likely to attend meetings than colleagues who’ve been around for decades. The average freshman alderman attended 91% of required meetings, usually surpassing the veteran they replaced.

New 39th Ward Ald. Sam Nugent, for example, attended 99% of meetings — far exceeding her predecessor, Ald. Marge Laurino of the powerful Northwest Side Laurino family, who only attended 64%.

Ald. Andre Vasquez, a Democratic Socialist who beat out 36-year incumbent Ald. Pat O’Connor, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, has attended 95% of required meetings, compared to O’Connor’s 48%. Vasquez is a member of eight committees and has the ninth-best grade of any alderman.

“It’s what the people pay us to do,” Vasquez said. “That’s what your tax dollars do. And like, this is your government, you should expect us to be there.”

Nugent, who had the best attendance rate of all aldermen, agreed.

Read more: City Council committees face heat for leaving work undone while payroll bills pile up

“How do you know what’s going on if you don’t show up to committee meetings?” she said. “We’re able to learn more about the legislation and ask questions of relevant stakeholders so they can explain the nuances of legislation.”

Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, the dean of the body with more than a half-century of experience under his belt, showed up to just 111 of the 191 meetings he was required to attend this term, giving him a 58% score — the second-worst on the council.

When confronted by a reporter about his attendance record, Burke said he thinks he has “probably close to 100% attendance at meetings of committees I’m appointed to.”

“It’s my impression that I generally attend meetings of the committees I’m assigned to,” he said.

Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, sits next to Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward

Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, sits to the right of Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, at a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022. Cardenas and Burke had the worst and second-worst attendance rates, respectively, among city aldermen.

Manuel Martinez

“I’m grateful this time, I’m not in the bottom,” Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, said of her record this term. Her 67% attendance rate gave her a rank of 47 out of 50. She was the former Budget Committee chairwoman WBEZ had to sue to get her committee’s attendance sheets. Austin is the second-longest serving alderman on the City Council and one of two sitting aldermen, along with Burke, under federal indictment.

In addition to having contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic, Austin suffers from a heart condition. “A lot of my nonattendance was [because I was sick]. So if I could have in the hospital, I did it [virtually] by my laptop.”

Some of the lowest scorers have eyes on new elected positions

The lowest score — 57% — belonged to Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, who represents parts of McKinley Park and Little Village and has served on the City Council since 2003. He is currently running for a spot on Cook County’s Board of Review, a property tax appeals body.

Cardenas dismissed the attendance data, saying it’s “not possible” that he only attended 172 of the 304 meetings for which he was required to show up during the two-and-a-half-year period.

“Otherwise, how would I get stuff done here?” Cardenas said. He is Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, meaning he’s one of two aldermen responsible for rounding up votes for her agenda. “I’m always involved in conversations on everything. I’m telling you, I’m always up on everything that’s going on.”

He did not provide data, however, to dispute the findings of the joint analysis.

And while he spoke to the importance of showing up to meetings to “pay attention to what everyone else is saying,” he also noted that much of the City Council’s work does not happen in public. “There’s a lot of ways to be an effectual leader, and certainly being here is just one of them. … But I’m also being active and intentional — if you see me on the floor, I work the floor.”

Several other aldermen are looking to be elected to new gigs this year. 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. is running for a judgeship on the Cook County Circuit Court. He made it to 61% of his required meetings, giving him the third-lowest record above Cardenas and Burke. He doesn’t believe his low attendance will impact his judicial campaign.

“I try to make as many as I can,” says Brookins, who also operates his own law firm. “Clearly I have other obligations and responsibilities.”

Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, is running to replace retiring Rep. Bobby Rush in Congress. Her attendance rate is 97% for this term. Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, who had an attendance rate of 86%, is running for Congress as well, in the new 3rd District. Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, is also running to fill a judicial vacancy in Cook County’s 11th subcircuit court. He attended 88% of required meetings. Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, who is running for Illinois Secretary of State, posted an 91% attendance rate. And Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, who had a nearly 92% attendance rate in this analysis, said last week he’s running for Chicago mayor.

Editors’ note: This story has been updated to correct attendance rates for individual aldermen and the City Council’s overall attendance rate after aldermen were mistakenly counted as absent from meetings for which no records were available. This change increased the City Council’s overall attendance rate by 5 percentage points to 86% and shifted some aldermanic rankings. For more information, see this data explainer.

Alex Nitkin and Erin Hegarty cover City Hall for The Daily Line. Claudia Morell is a metro reporter for WBEZ. A.D. Quig covers politics and government for Crain’s Chicago Business.

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