Editor's note: This story was first published in 2013. Chicago Ald. Dick Mell retired in 2013, His daughter, Deb Mell, is the 33rd Ward Alderman. She is running for re-election in 2019.
Chicagoan Andrea Lee had a problem.
When she looked across the street from her condo building in the city’s Noble Square neighborhood, the 35-year-old noticed that her neighbors had something she didn’t: recycling bins.
So Andrea did what many Chicagoans with neighborhood problems do: She called her local alderman, only to learn that aldermanic power (at least when it comes to refuse collection) ain’t what it used to be.
After another dead end with her alderman’s office (this time, about basement flooding), Andrea asked Curious City:
If these are the city services that are supposed to be tackled by the aldermen, and this isn’t what they’re actually doing, then what are they doing?
“I guess there are things that the mayor proposes that they vote on,” Andrea said when Curious City first reached out to her last month. “I don’t know what those things are. I want a little more of a window into that black box of aldermanic duties.”
(In the video above, we hear what Andrea learned during a visit to Ald. Walter Burnett’s office.)
Chicago’s 50 aldermen, it turns out, have a hodgepodge of legislative, administrative and downright strange responsibilities that fall into their laps. (Think: pigeon poop and pregnancy tests.) Some of those duties are codified in law, but some are passed down by tradition alone.
Here are the three broad categories of aldermanic duties — a list, as we learned, that is hardly exhaustive.
Chicago alderman legislate
At least on paper, Chicago aldermen comprise the legislative branch of city government.
State law puts them in charge of a host of the expected legislative duties: They introduce and pass laws, they approve budgets and mayoral appointments, and they redraw Chicago’s political boundaries every decade.
But the vast majority of stuff that moves through the City Council lacks any headline-grabbing sex appeal. Think less about foie gras bans and controversial city-wide privatization deals, and more about mundane city ephemera that happen to require approval by the entire City Council: sidewalk cafe permits, loading zones, and senior citizen sewer fee refunds.
Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in May 2011, there have been 28,971 measures introduced to the City Council. Of those, only 2,030 (about seven percent) were flagged by the City Clerk’s office as being pieces of “key legislation”; that is, they were proposals that could have a potential citywide impact, such as mayoral appointments, legal settlements, or tax and fee hikes.
If this strikes you as more administrative than legislative, that’s because City Council isn’t set up as a robust watchdog-like second branch of city government, at least according to Dick Simpson, a former North Side alderman who's now a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“A big problem with aldermen in the city of Chicago is they don’t legislate very well,” Simpson said. “They’ll look at what comes across their desk, ask what the mayor wants, and vote ‘yes.’”
Part of the problem is that aldermen don’t have staff to exhaustively vet complicated ordinances, and the city has no equivalent to the Congressional Budget Office, Simpson said. He points to the unpopular parking meter privatization deal that was passed in 2008, which former Mayor Richard M. Daley gave aldermen just three days to review.
But the lack of legislative muscle is also cultural, said 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore, who has represented the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood for more than two decades.
Somewhere between the Second Floor and the Fifth Floor of City Hall, there has developed a tacit understanding, Moore said: The mayor gets to drive the citywide agenda, and aldermen are left to control what goes on their wards.
“I often liken the City of Chicago [to] a feudal system, where the mayor is sort of a de facto king,” Moore said. “And each alderman is the lord — I guess, lady, for female aldermen — of their individual fiefdom.”
Chicago aldermen zone
And one of the most important lordly duties, after all, is the building of castles.
In Chicago the method of approving applications for castles — or skyscrapers, home additions, and business expansions, for that matter — is the city’s zoning process.
Zoning may sound tearfully boring, but it’s incredibly important. Simply put, the City Council’s zoning decisions determine where buildings are allowed to be built, how high they can be, and what you can do in them.
The City Council’s zoning role explains why there are no 80-story high rises vaulting out of quiet residential blocks, and why you won’t find a one-room log cabin on Michigan Avenue.
“If you wanna know why a city looks the way it does, or why it works the way it does, all private behavior in this regard is regulated by the city,” said David Schleicher, a George Mason University law professor who has studied municipal zoning.
“More than the police, more than the schools, it is the most important thing cities do,” Schleicher said.
And it is here that Chicago aldermen enjoy a nearly unchecked power, unmatched by their city council counterparts in other American cities. The unwritten rule of “aldermanic privilege” (also called “aldermanic prerogative”) gives aldermen de facto veto power over any development project in their ward.
“You wouldn’t find that in any city code or state statute,” Ald. Moore said. “It has just been the custom and practice of the City Council for generations.”
Despite the minutiae of zoning, Moore and other aldermen defend their privilege by saying that they have an intimate knowledge of what goes on in their wards, and the extraordinary zoning power helps them shape the architectural and economic landscapes.
But Schleicher said Chicago’s “sacrosanct” aldermanic privilege has its drawbacks. He points to homeless shelters, which most people agree serve a greater good but which often fall victim to “not in my backyard” opposition when it comes time to break ground.
“The cost of aldermanic privilege is not wasting city council people’s time,” Schleicher said. “But rather, creating too parochial an attitude towards problems that are really citywide problems.”
And UIC’s Dick Simpson can point to another problem with concentrating so much power in the hands of one Chicago politician: Dozens of aldermen have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“Ninety percent of ‘em have gone to jail for either zoning or building bribes,” Simpson said.
Chicago aldermen deal with ‘everything else’
Zoning and legislating may look good on paper, but woe to the alderman who doesn’t make sure the ward’s trash gets picked up.
During a recent hearing, veteran 33rd Ward Ald. Dick Mell — a self-described “dinosaur” of the City Council — excoriated some aldermen who questioned Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed tweaks to the city’s much-reviled parking meter privatization.
“If anybody thinks that a legislative vote is gonna cost you the election, you’re gonna lose your election,” Mell said on the City Council floor. “What’s gonna get you elected is when ... your guy comes in and says ... his next-door neighbor’s throwing dog poop in his yard, and you go over and solve it.”
Indeed, the pedestrian concerns that fall under the broad umbrella of “ward issues” range from neighborly disputes to public safety. Several elected officials said those problems occupy the bulk of an alderman’s time.
“I am so focused on potholes and sidewalks, and I just didn’t think that would be the case,” said 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman, who was just elected to the City Council in 2011. “I’m obsessed with that, and I just didn’t think that would be the case.”
Cappleman says he’s spent a lot of time dealing with a building in his ward that suffered roof damage due to excess pigeon poop. Alderman Mell, meanwhile, bought a chainsaw for his ward office in case constituents need a tree trimmed on short notice. Alderman Moore said he once had a staffer administer a pregnancy test to a worried young woman who visited his ward office.
Why it works this way
The structure of Chicago’s curiously personal aldermanic duties has its genesis from the days of political patronage, Simpson said. Aldermen could trade city favors, such as pothole-filling and curb-cutting, for votes come election day.
While that sort of quid-pro-quo is now looked down upon, the scaffolding of the Machine ward system remains intact, allowing aldermen micro-manage their wards. Each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen only has to deal with about 55,000 constituents. Compare that to about 162,000 constituents a piece for New York’s 51 council members, and a whopping 255,000 constituents for the average Los Angeles council member.
While some newer council members are concerned with this sort of aldermanic co-dependence (“Can’t they just call 311?”), Moore said it’s one of the reasons he loves his job.
“All of humanity comes walking into my office, with all sorts of problems from the very serious to the mundane, and everything in between,” said. Ald. Moore. “They’re looking to us to help solve them.”
Alex Keefe is the Senior Editor of Government and Politics at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @akeefe.
Correction: This story originally misstated Andrea Lee's age. She is 35 years of age.