Powerful alderman backs Helen Shiller for independent budget office
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter March 31, 2014 3:00PM
Ex-Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) | Sun-Times files
Updated: May 2, 2014 6:19AM
An influential alderman vowed Monday to get the City Council’s $485,000-a-year independent budget office up and running and touted former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) as the perfect choice to run it.
Four months after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed that Shiller was angling for the $130,000-a-year job of City Council Financial Analyst, Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) emerged as Shiller’s No. 1 cheerleader.
“I support her 100 percent because it’s not a person that we have to get ready. It’s not a person that we have to explain anything to. Helen knows that, if you’re asking about something that’s on Street A, why are you asking about A? You should be on Street B,” Austin said.
Other candidates “work and work and work in a vacuum of no knowledge. I would prefer to have Helen. I know that she could hit the ground running — period.”
Austin summarily dismissed those who favor an outside expert with no ties to City Hall or the Chicago political system.
“No one could be more expert than Helen because she knows our system. She has worked this system 20-some odd years,” Austin said.
“The background Helen has, as well as her experience, puts her far ahead above everybody for me. She can hit the ground running, not have to dot an I, cross a T or say, `Uh.’”
Ironically, Shiller and her son, Brendan, both lobbyists, were sitting behind the City Council chambers during Monday’s Finance Committee meeting. The former alderman insisted that her presence had nothing to do with the independent budget office.
Asked if she was going to get the job, Shiller said, “If they set up the selection committee.”
The ordinance calls for the financial analyst to be chosen by a selection committee composed of Austin, Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), three other aldermen and two outsiders, possibly including a representative from the Civic Federation.
The three other aldermen are to be chosen by Austin and Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th).
Two weeks ago, the Sun-Times reported that Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), chief sponsor of the independent budget office, was getting antsy about the three-month delay in appointing the selection committee.
Pawar said then that he and his two co-sponsors — Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Michele Smith (43rd) — had written a letter to Harris in January expressing their desire to sit on the selection committee.
On Monday, both Austin and Harris promised to get the ball rolling on an office that could play a major role in advising the City Council on new revenues, budget cuts or a combination of the two needed to solve Chicago’s pension crisis.
“I didn’t think it needed to be created in the first place. . . . But, they decided on it. That’s what they wanted. They got it approved. Boom. Let’s do it,” Austin said.
Pressed on what took so long, Harris added, “It’s timing. People have to have time. We just got through an election cycle [in] which a lot of committeemen were pretty busy.”
Elected to the City Council in 1987 with the backing of then-Mayor Harold Washington, whom she described as “like a father to me,” Shiller represented the North Side’s 46th Ward for 24 years.
For nearly half that time, Shiller was Daley’s most persistent critic.
She supported candidates against Daley and was the only dissenting vote against his budgets.
During budget hearings, she would pepper department heads with questions and submit a hundred more in writing.
Ultimately, Shiller was co-opted by Daley, became a committee chairman, supported his budgets and programs and ended up endorsing Daley for re-election in 2003.
Daley returned the favor by supporting the Shiller-backed Wilson Yard project, among others. He also stopped putting up candidates to run against her.
At the time, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote that “the last squeaky wheel in the city Council had been greased. . . . The last independent voice had joined the chorus.”