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Rahm Emanuel considers cutting City Council seats in half

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has broached a touchy subject during private meetings with aldermen to solicit their ideas on budget and ethics reform: cutting the nation’s second-largest City Council in half.

Several aldermen, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were stunned when Emanuel opened the discussion by asking them point-blank, “What do you think about going down to 25 aldermen?”

It was a bold opening line for a mayor-elect who will need every vote he can get to reorganize the Council, pass his programs and solve a budget and pension crisis that literally has Chicago on the brink of bankruptcy.

“I just sat there. I didn’t say a word,” one alderman said.

Another alderman said he did not take offense at Emanuel’s suggestion, even though the idea would threaten half the City Council with extinction.

“He’s challenging the status quo and challenging us to think outside the box. He’s saying, ‘Think of the boldest thing you can think of and let’s talk about it,’ ” the alderman said.

Emanuel also raised the politically volatile subject during a recent interview with the Sun-Times.

“When I went around in the campaign, you know what everybody universally said to me? Cut the City Council in half. . . . They all say it out of frustration,” Emanuel said.

“I said, “You think the City Council is to the city’s budget what people think foreign aid is to the federal budget.’ [But] it’s more symbolic value than actual.”

Still, Emanuel said he was challenging individual aldermen by saying, “The public wants a set of reforms: budgetary, ethics, TIF, etc. Where are your changes you’re willing to make?”

Chicago taxpayers spend $19.5 million a year to maintain 50 aldermen and $4.7 million more for the 19 standing committees.

Any change in City Council structure would have to be made by the Illinois General Assembly or by Chicago voters in the form of a binding referendum.

It would likely await the ward remap that follows the 2010 U.S. Census. A 200,000-person decline in Chicago’s population might strengthen the argument for a smaller Council.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall is all for the idea.

“Why do so many other major cities operate with so many fewer council members?” Msall said. “Los Angeles, larger in population and area, operates with only 15. Houston has 14. Philadelphia has 17.

“It’s always politically difficult to change the status quo, but it doesn’t mean it should be avoided. We’re facing enormous financial challenges and questions of, how we can continue to finance this government. There has to be shared sacrifice by all the stakeholders: citizens, city employees and aldermen.”

If Emanuel decides to seriously pursue the idea of a smaller City Council — instead of tinkering at the margins by shrinking the roster of committees — he could find an ally in Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).

Twice in the last 16 years, Burke has called the 50-member Council unwieldy, unproductive and unnecessary and proposed cutting it in half to save taxpayers $10 million a year.

“We are now one of the largest city councils in the country,” Burke said in 2002. New York has 51. We have 50. Reduced operating expenses would be the principal benefit. But a smaller council would also be more responsive to the voter. They’ve have more constituents. But they’d be more easily identified.”

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) strongly disagrees, stating, “In most cities, people don’t go to their alderman for anything. In Chicago, people go to their alderman first for every damned thing — and they expect results.

“Rahm is exploring every possible opportunity to cut costs. You don’t take anything off the table. I don’t blame him for that. But, I think he’ll hit a stone wall on this one.”

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