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Ald. Michelle Harris

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. Harris helped push through a proposal to increase the number of committees of the City Council and name their own chairs, a move that some say will make the council more independent of the mayor but others criticized as rushed and self-serving.

Ashlee Rezin

Chicago City Council claims independence from the mayor as it expands committees

Chicago City Council members bucked tradition and historic deference to the mayor Thursday and chose their own chairs to oversee an expanded set of committees — at least for now.

Aldermen also adopted a new set of rules to govern the council in a long sought bid for greater council independence.

“For the first time in my lifetime, the city council will have a voice at the table. We will be able to set our own destiny,” 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris, one of the aldermen who led the effort, said in a news conference after the vote. “So this is a first, and it will be the beginning of many firsts.”

While council members have had the authority to choose their own committee chairs, it’s been a process long controlled by the mayor who historically hand picks the leadership assignments.

But some council members say the push through of the plan, just five days before the runoff election and before the next wave of council members take office, smacked of political self-interest, coming from council members who have backed outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot and could face losing their coveted chairmanships under the governance of the next mayor.

Advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters of Chicago and Better Government Association had urged aldermen to hold off on voting on the proposal to allow the public and incoming council members to have a say.

The plan expands the number of committees from 19 currently to 28, and features new bodies such as committees on Executive Appointments and on Aging. Under the new rules, the text of any ordinance that’s directly introduced to a committee must also be posted 48 hours before a vote on the matter.

Critics of the plan say the number of committees was only expanded to buy off the votes of skeptical members.

“You can’t buy me. I ain’t got a price. I ain’t no prostitute,” said 17th Ward Ald. David Moore, who voted against the proposals.

32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack, who helped lead the effort, pushed back on the characterization of how behind-the-scenes discussions went, saying aldermen are “off on a different planet when they talk about it that way.”

The plan also makes most committees themselves smaller, with 11 aldermen per committee compared to the current 20. Critics have said that means key legislation could get pushed through with even less representation than before.

The rules and committee chair assignments must still be approved by the newly elected City Council once it convenes in May. Committee membership also has yet to be determined. Fourteen aldermanic races must still be decided in Tuesday’s runoff election.

Several aldermen who had initially expressed concerns with the plan voted in favor of the proposals Thursday and touted the increased political and racial representation, such as the number of Latina women who will be serving as committee chairs.

“This is the most diverse leadership structure in the city’s history. And this is the most progressive leadership structure in the city’s history. And it could not have been accomplished without people coming together,” said 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

However several of the council’s longest tenured members, such as 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, were absent from the list of chairmanships doled out and some accused the proposals’ architects of shutting them out of the process.

“Somebody who just got here, still don’t know where the bathroom is, is a chairman,” Beale said in apparent reference to Ald. Monique Scott, who was appointed in June to represent the 24th Ward, being named chair of the Committee on Human Relations, Veterans and Returning Citizens.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Lightfoot said the “unusual” vote could be a historic step “in increasing the ways this body can advocate on residents’ behalf.

“However, if this expansion to 28 committees and other reorganization efforts do not have consistent wins on behalf of our residents, it will be viewed in a far less favorable light,” Lightfoot said. “Time will only tell which verdict will be rendered.”

Under Lightfoot, aldermen began to push back on the council’s “rubber stamp” reputation. Supporters of the push for independence said it was necessary to seize the opportunity before either Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson or former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas occupy the fifth floor of City Hall -– and stressed the council reorganization occurred independently of either mayoral candidate.

“If this isn’t the right time, then when?” said 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn.

Critics noted several of the 19 current committees seldom meet. They questioned whether it was prudent to add more council committees when the city is already slated to spend over $5 million dollars on committees in 2023, according to city budget documents.

WBEZ’s Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics. Mariah Woelfel contributed to this story.

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