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Chicago City Council

Mayor Brandon Johnson presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. Some other cities have more independent councils than Chicago, thanks to city charters and independent fully-funded budget offices.

Ashlee Rezin

What would it take for Chicago’s City Council to be more independent?

On its face, the August meeting of the New York City Council had several parallels to Chicago.

On the agenda that day was approval of a permanent outdoor dining program, something Chicago’s City Council expanded earlier this summer. And New York’s City Council has 51 members — just one more than Chicago’s 50 alderpersons.

But the elected official gaveling in the meeting wasn’t New York’s mayor. Instead, it was one of the City Council’s own members: Majority Leader Keith Powers.

It’s one of the ways Chicago’s City Council differs from many of its counterparts across the country — and remains deferential to the mayor.

“The president doesn’t preside over Congress. The governor doesn’t preside over the state Legislature. Why does our mayor continue to preside over the City Council?” said Ald. Anthony Beale, one the council’s longest-serving members. “We are our own body. We’re the legislative branch of government. And we should be acting accordingly.”

Democracy Solutions Project

Through “The Democracy Solutions Project,” WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government at the Harris School of Public Policy are taking a solutions-oriented approach to reporting on issues facing our democracy in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election.

As Chicago’s City Council enters its 100th year under its modern form, some alderpersons, good government advocates and political science experts say that despite incremental progress, the City Council still has institutional inertia to overcome before it can operate independently from the historical grip the mayor’s office has held.

Proposals include everything from altering the council’s structure, more robustly staffing fiscal and legislative agencies to a wholesale reset on Chicago’s municipal governance by codifying reforms in a city charter.

Ald. Anthony Beale

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) speaks during Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first City Council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Beale is pushing for a more independent legislative body.

Pat Nabong

On the campaign trail, Mayor Brandon Johnson pledged support for creating a more independent City Council that would choose its own committee chairs and have its own parliamentarian, attorney and speaker. But when he assumed office, he rewarded council allies with coveted committee chairmanships — making alderpersons’ bid to set their own destinies short-lived.

Asked if Johnson still supports those proposals and if he plans to increase funding for the fiscal and legislative offices that aid alderpersons, a spokesman for Johnson said Monday the mayor’s office has no comment.

Johnson’s floor leader, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, has long been an outspoken voice under prior administrations. But he said having the tools for good governance doesn’t necessarily mean alderpersons need to be at odds with the mayor. Ramirez-Rosa said he suspects more conservative alderpersons will use the facade of independence to ultimately object to progressive policies, such as a program to increase social worker response to emergency calls or a proposal to increase funding for homelessness prevention.

“If independence means preventing the mayor from passing Treatment Not Trauma, that’s not independence. That’s just conservative policies, or conservative approach to governance, hiding behind the word of independence,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “If independence means stopping the mayor from enacting Bring Chicago Home, again, that’s not independence, that’s pushing for conservative policies and pushing forward a conservative check on the progressive Fifth Floor.”

Ultimately, alderpersons hold the keys to their own independence if they’re willing to alter the systems that propelled them to power in the first place, said Joe Ferguson, Chicago’s former inspector general.

“It would mean giving up some of the power that they fought so hard to gain,” Ferguson said. “And if Chicago wants the vigor, the efficacy, the rigor, the transparency of its systems to improve, it can’t be left to politics.”

The Democracy Solutions Project

The problem: Some believe a more independent Chicago City Council would better protect citizens’ interests.

Possible solutions: Some City Council members propose a robustly funded and staffed office that would provide legal advice, parliamentary help and financial analysis of city proposals. Others say the city needs a new charter, or constitution, to enact reform.

Council structure

Motions, appeals and even nested motions on motions may make the average Chicagoan’s eyes glaze over during a City Council meeting. But they’re the fundamental legal levers that guide how the body functions and legislation gets passed.

“What you see when the rules don’t get followed is people don’t get a chance to voice their opinion, a lot of votes get rushed through and you see the 50-0 or 49-1 rubber stamp effect happening. Which isn’t good government,” said Geoffrey Cubbage, a policy analyst for the Better Government Association, which advocates for transparency, equity and accountability in government.

“It means you have fewer people driving the ship, fewer people getting a say, and legislation gets hurried through that the average viewer and even their elected representative may not fully understand the impact of,” Cubbage said.

Two years into Lightfoot’s term, 22 alderpersons accused her of repeatedly flouting City Council rules of procedures in “a manipulation of our democratic process.”

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens to council members speak during a city council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

Anthony Vazquez

Under Lightfoot, Beale and Ald. Brendan Reilly proposed separate ordinances to give alderpersons their own legal counsel that could also advise them on parliamentary procedure during meetings. Alderpersons already receive help drafting ordinances and get fiscal analysis from the Legislative Reference Bureau and Council Office of Financial Analysis — but both entities have limited budgets. Reilly’s proposal would have also empowered the City Council with subpoena authority. Both ordinances ultimately failed to gain traction.

Beale said he’s worked with Reilly on legislation combining their two proposals, and said a single office for alderpersons to draft ordinances, receive fiscal analysis and turn to for parliamentary advice would help alderpersons be true legislators. Reilly could not be reached for comment.

A parliamentarian would give City Council members an objective take on procedural rules, which are currently decided by the mayor with input from the city’s corporation counsel. But it would be an advisory role, and remains to be seen if it would give the council more control in and of itself.

A bigger roadblock toward independence may be that in Chicago, the mayor presides over City Council meetings — unlike its counterparts in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where council members elect their own speaker or president. And under Chicago’s City Council rules, the mayor ultimately decides rule disputes — and their ruling can only be appealed if a majority of alderpersons vote to overturn it.

Al Gage, the president of the American Institute of Parliamentarians, said it reinforces that as a body, City Council members have collective power, even if they don’t often use it to buck the mayor.

“If you have enough votes on that City Council, then the ruling will go your way rather than the mayor’s way. That’s how it should be decided,” Gage said, “because ultimately the body should decide the meaning and interpretation of the rules.”

Independent agencies/support staff

When the infamous parking meter deal was struck in 2008, and again revised five years later, Ald. Scott Waguespack’s office conducted its own financial analyses each time that was at odds with the mayor’s projections. While alderpersons could continue to do that on a case-by-case basis, a more robust Council Office of Financial Analysis and Legislative Reference Bureau would better equip alderpersons, Waguespack said.

Other cities, “function very well, in part, because they have those other independent bodies built up. And so they don’t have to worry about just kowtowing to the mayor’s budget, or plans or ideas or whatever,” Waguespack said. “They can go straight to those other bodies and say, ‘Is this legitimate? Is it legal? Is it the numbers that they say they are, or the numbers that they think are going to pan out?’ ”

In the wake of a pension crisis that rocked San Diego city government and earned it the moniker of “Enron-by-the-Sea,” San Diego voters in 2004 voted to shift the city from a City Council-Manager form of government to a Mayor-City Council model.

With that vote was born the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst, an agency written into San Diego’s city charter that aims to provide objective financial analysis and advice to San Diego’s City Council. The office analyzes the mayor’s proposed budget, has subject-area experts dedicated to each of the standing committees of San Diego’s City Council and prepares reports on financial policies at council members’ request.

Charles Modica is San Diego’s Independent Budget Analyst and only the second person to hold the position. He said there was recognition that when the city shifted from a city manager form of government to a “strong mayor” model that they “may lose some of that ability to have independent and professional advice given to them.”

“Having an office like mine does two things: It helps them get up to speed very quickly in being able to be effective in accomplishing goals for themselves and their constituents,” Modica said of City Council members who are subject to term limits. “And it also allows them to have a longer lasting impact on the city.”

While the Independent Budget Analyst is appointed by San Diego’s City Council, firewalls exist in municipal code to maintain the office’s independence. For example, those who have worked in the last eight years for the mayor, council members or as registered lobbyists with the city are barred from working in San Diego’s IBA.

While San Diego is smaller than Chicago both in terms of the size of its City Council (nine members) and population (nearly 1.4 million), its Independent Budget Analyst’s office boasts a staff of 11 with a $2.7 million budget.

New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) is even larger, with a budget of more than $6.7 million for 38 full-time and one full-time equivalent position. Louisa Chafee, director of New York’s IBO, said the office was modeled after the Congressional Budget Office and intended to provide macro-level analysis, such as independent estimates on the costs of New York’s asylum-seeker response.

Chicago’s Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA) pales in comparison, with a budget of $317,680 for three positions — two legislative budget analysts and one chief administrative officer. According to the office’s website, it received just a handful of requests from alderpersons for analysis last year.

Told COFA’s size and budget, Chafee said her first thought was: “They’re amazing. They must not sleep.”

The Civic Federation recommends that for COFA to serve as “a truly independent analysis arm of City Council,” it needs to receive more funding, have at least a dozen staff and be empowered to act as an independent office, like New York’s IBO.

Alderpersons are budgeted for three ward-level staff, and under Chicago’s City Council structure, additional funding and staff come with the perk of overseeing a committee. The Office of Inspector General found that committee staff are often directed to work on ward matters, a practice the office recommended alderpersons end.

The structure creates “huge disparities” between those who secure a coveted chairmanship versus those who don’t, said Connie Mixon, an Elmhurst University political science professor and director of its urban studies program.

“And because the mayor appoints the committee chairs, this makes it very political,” Mixon said. “So there’s an incentive to go along with the mayor built into the structure, into the institution, which limits the independence of City Council themselves.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. Ramirez-Rosa is Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new floor leader and says so-called independence for some may just be opposition to progressive policy making.

Ashlee Rezin

Ramirez-Rosa said while COFA and LRB would benefit from more resources and staffing, it’s not a priority for the upcoming budget that he’s heard from his colleagues who see potential to pass long sought-after policy goals under a progressive mayor and want to tackle “bread and butter issues.”

“Ultimately, Chicago is a progressive and liberal majority,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “And if the council’s progressive and liberal majority comes together with our progressive and liberal mayor, to get things done, that’s how government functions.”

System reset

Another route to enact City Council reforms would be through a city charter, a constitution that would delineate city government’s authority and processes. Chicago doesn’t have one, and it’s a critical foundation of governance that Chicago lacks, said Ferguson, who now leads (re)Chicago, an initiative to reimagine the city’s governance structure.

“It is not something that can be changed on the fly, legislated between political actors who are in competition with each other,” Ferguson said of a city charter. “And that’s the difference with the constitution — is that it’s a higher form of law.”

Modica and Chafee said it’s their respective city charters that safeguard their offices’ autonomy.

“The city charter gives clarity both to the highest levels of government — the mayor — and it’s a transparent document. Anyone can read it, and it’s in fairly plain English, which makes it accessible to a really broad swath of New Yorkers, and I think is one tool for helping make government understandable,” Chafee said. “It works well in New York. I think someone said, ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.’”

Both New York and San Diego’s independent budget offices faced challenges in their early years to get other city agencies to understand and support their mission. In New York, the pushback and calls for abolishing the newly created agency began before it was even up and running. It took a string of court rulings for the office to finally get off the ground and be funded in 1996, more than six years after it was authorized by voters in a 1989 revision of the city’s charter.

New York’s city charter ensures the IBO is authorized to receive data and information from city agencies in a timely manner — a stipulation that a New York Supreme Court judge cited when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani withheld info from the office. The charter even sets a floor for funding the office at no less than 10% of what the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget is appropriated, “which gives a level of financial stability,” Chafee said.

“We are surrounded by legal measures that allow us to not argue about our funding or struggle to get information to produce critical reports,” Chafee said. “And our existence is required.”

A charter commission would give the public a chance to craft the type of government they want, Ferguson said, and be an opportunity to implement a host of reforms such as independent redistricting, term limits and adjusting the size of City Council.

Former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson

Inspector General Joe Ferguson speaks to members of the City Council at the City Council Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Ferguson says a new city charter could give Chicago an opportunity to write new reforms to build legislative independence.

Anthony Vazquez

Ferguson said the most viable path would be passing legislation in Springfield to allow for a charter commission, whose recommendations would ultimately need to be approved by voters. Prior efforts to allow for a city charter faltered, and Ferguson acknowledged that, “so far as our history and culture and political dynamics are concerned, this is a heavy lift.”

Waguespack said he hasn’t found a significant reason to reset the city’s governance through a charter, and noted the City Council has taken steps to implement reforms that a city charter would be aimed at, like the ethics rules City Council passed in the wake of Ald. Ed Burke’s indictment.

But Ferguson said it’s a discussion worth having.

“These are all things that fundamentally change what our democracy is, and therefore what the relationship we all have to government is,” Ferguson said. “Which is why regardless of where we land, if we were to have a charter commission, a charter commission would assure that we are having a meaningful discussion about what we want of government, from government and and as a relationship with government.”

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago city government and politics for WBEZ.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

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