If Chicago’s 50 City Council members received a grade for how often they showed up to required meetings and hearings at City Hall, the average alderman would get a D, according to a joint analysis by WBEZ and The Daily Line.
The average alderman showed up to just 65 percent of committee and City Council meetings between the start of the current term in 2015 and the end of last year, according to available attendance logs obtained through open records requests. Eight showed up less than half the time.
Next week, voters will decide which Chicago aldermen deserve another four-year term — and the six-figure, taxpayer-funded salary that comes with it.
Traditionally, that job has been more associated with tree-trimming and garbage pickup than crafting city policy and watchdogging government. But every honorary street sign, zoning amendment, multi-billion dollar bond sale, airport lease agreement and tax hike must be approved by one of the City Council’s 16 committees before advancing to become law.
Still, some aldermen just don’t show up to the meetings where all of that happens.
“Some of my colleagues, they prefer to be show horses as opposed to work horses,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, a freshman who had the council’s best attendance rate at nearly 95 percent.
While many aldermen complained of conflicting meetings schedules, those with the lowest attendance rates argue that trudging over to meetings at City Hall just isn’t the most vital part of the job.
“I don't really have to show up,” said powerful South Side Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, who had the council’s worst attendance rate at 34 percent, according to available records. Austin said she often listens in to what’s happening in the council chambers over the speaker system in her office. “And if my vote is that important, I do show up.”
In fact, it’s largely because of Austin that it’s impossible for voters to get the full picture of how many other aldermen don’t show up for committee meetings. To calculate aldermanic attendance rates, WBEZ and The Daily Line combed through nearly a thousand pages of monthly meeting reports from the start of the current term in June 2015 through December 2018.
All committees filed their attendance data with the City Clerk’s office — except for the Budget Committee, which Austin chairs. After weeks of stonewalling, WBEZ sued the committee in Cook County court to get the documents ahead of the Feb. 26 election. Ultimately, the committee produced only a quarter of the documents that it’s legally required to keep.
Poor attendance common among council veterans
Including Austin, eight aldermen attended less than half of the meetings they were supposed to: Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, George Cardenas, 12th Ward, Howard Brookins, 21st Ward, Danny Solis, 25th Ward, Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward, Pat O’Connor, 40th Ward, and Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward.
Maldonado cited the death of his wife as a reason for many of his absences.
But other aldermen said they view their role the same way old school ward bosses of The Machine days did: They’re the person you call when you want to start a new business, when a squirrel eats through your garbage can, or when the pothole outside your garage dings up your car.
Hairston, who represents parts of the South Shore neighborhood and Jackson Park, said courting development to her ward “creates a whole other job.” When asked about her 49 percent attendance record, she said her work on the massive Obama Presidential Center, the Tiger Woods golf course, and efforts to get a grocery store have kept her “very, very busy in the ward.”
“What I think is most important is to be in the ward doing the work that the people expect you to do,” Hairston said.
For Cardenas, from the McKinley Park neighborhood, the simple numbers don’t tell the whole story. He said looking at attendance is like basing a student’s aptitude on the frequency they show up to class.
“You could have a perfect attendance,” said Cardenas, who had a 41 percent attendance rate. “It doesn't mean you are there, there. I mean mentally there, you know what I mean?”
“What good would it do for [an alderman] to be 100 percent in committee meetings and 100 percent absent from his community?” he said.
In addition to busy schedules in the ward, the average alderman sits on seven committees, which often hold simultaneous meetings at City Hall.
“Obviously, I can’t be in two places at once,” said Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, 1st Ward, echoing a common refrain from aldermen.
Some aldermen blamed their absences on the pedestrian, hyper-local votes that clog the vast majority of the council’s legislative docket. Rogers Park Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the City Council and has only attended about 51 percent of the meetings he was required to, according to the analysis.
Moore is chairman of the Housing Committee, and said he’s present for nearly all of its meetings. But he argues that he’s got better things to do than travel downtown to vote on a street light or stop sign for a colleague on the other side of the city.
“My top priority is serving my constituents. And sitting Downtown in a committee meeting on a bunch of ward-specific matters that have nothing to do with my ward — I don’t think is the best use of my time,” Moore said.
For Ravenswood Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward, who attended less than half the meetings he was required to attend, time is better spent on citywide public policy.
He is now running to become the city’s treasurer.
“I’m proud of my record and I personally don’t know that it makes a whole lot of sense to be voting on every single sidewalk cafe, stop sign, every minor adjustment that we make, and so I’ve been on the record of that,” he said.
Brookins and O’Connor declined to comment on the story. Solis did not respond to requests for comment. All three are committee chairs.
‘This is what we’re here to do’
The City Council has long been derided as a rubber stamp for the mayor’s agenda, a body where vote outcomes are predetermined by behind-the-scenes deals before legislation hits the council floor. Before every monthly City Council meeting, most legislative work is cooked up by the mayor’s office and handed down to committee chairmen to put before members for a vote.
Aldermen who more regularly show up to City Hall said committee meetings are the only time in the legislative process where aldermen can flex their power. They can make line edits, force entire rewrites of legislation, and invite local organizations and business groups to weigh in on new laws.
For aldermen with high attendance, even sitting through the mundane meetings is essential to what they believe it means to represent their ward.
“Most of the grunt work, the meat and potatoes of legislation-making happens in committees, that’s when you get to have more discussion, you get to hear more outside opinion,” said Lopez, the freshman alderman with the council’s highest attendance rate.
Northwest Side Ald. Ariel Reboyras, 30th Ward, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, attended 82 percent of the meetings he was supposed to over the past term. When constituents call and ask him whether he voted on a specific issue, he said he wants to be able to give them an answer.
“But if nothing else, this is what we’re here to do,” Reboyras said. “And if nothing else, we should attend the meetings. That’s what we get paid for.”
The type of work aldermen do – or can’t do – could be affected by who wins the race to become Chicago’s next mayor. Former White House Chief of Staff and U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, for example, has proposed cutting the City Council’s size by more than two-thirds, which would likely put pressure on aldermen to beef up their legislative roles and leave menial ward-related tasks to city staff.
And several candidates want to ban aldermen from holding outside jobs, following the corruption scandal involving once-powerful Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Ward allegedly illegal efforts to hustle business for his private law practice.
“For me, this is my full time job,” said freshman Ald. Michael Scott Jr., 24th Ward, who had an 84 percent attendance rate. “I’m in the ward every day. I’m not one of those aldermen who don’t come to work, and when I’m called to be here to a committee meeting, I think it’s important to show up.”
But for now, City Council members must juggle the pressures of being a hyper-responsive “alley alderman” for constituents in their wards, and helping shape a city-wide agenda in committee rooms downtown.
One recent weekday, Moreno had just finished up chairing a meeting about economic development, at the same time the Finance Committee on which he also sits was taking big votes about workers compensation and a $1 million legal payout to the family of someone who died in police custody.
And then he got call on his cell phone: Someone in his ward was upset their recycling hadn’t gotten picked up.
“I mean, of course you could make changes. But the system in Chicago has run so long that aldermen are responsible for everything,” Moreno said. “I don’t think Chicagoans would like that.”
Correction: Due to a typographical error, a previous version of this story included incorrect attendance rates for two aldermen. Michael Scott Jr.'s rate is 84 percent. John Arena's attendance rate is 73 percent.
- How we calculated ranking: An alderman’s rate is based off of the total number of meetings the alderman attended divided by the total number of meetings the alderman should have attended, based on committee assignments.
- Incomplete budget data: By deadline, the Council’s Budget Committee provided only 19 of the 78 meetings it held between June 2015 through December 2018. The Budget Committee “hand-searched through dozens of boxes looking for the attendance sheets,” Amber Ritter, an attorney for the city, wrote in an email. “They are stored with other records from each meeting, etc., as opposed to being stored in one place.” Austin, the committee chair, told The Daily Line she “can’t believe” the records are missing, and is “checking in on that.”
- We only count meetings were attendance records have been provided: In addition to the missing Budget data, not all offsite meetings have attendance records. Those meetings are excluded from the analysis.
- Committee version lists: Committee assignments are set on the first full City Council meeting of the term, which is usually held at the end of May. Over the course of our analysis, membership lists were amended two additional times. To address the changes, there are three membership lists: (1) the original assignments, (2) committee reshuffle when Sophia King replaced Will Burns in the 4th Ward in 2016, (3) committee reshuffle when Silvana Tabares replaced Mike Zalewski in the 23rd Ward in 2018.
- Joint meetings: Joint committees are when two or more committees meet together as a single body. Sometimes, aldermen are members of both committees. In those cases, an alderman’s attendance is only counted once.
- Attendance could include/exclude drop-ins: Sometimes, aldermen leave a meeting shortly after they’re marked present on attendance sheets. Sometimes, aldermen show up late and are not marked present on attendance sheets. The documents only reflect attendance at the time it was taken.