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Smaller Council could improve accountability

Updated: September 19, 2013 9:56AM



In the early 1900s, when Chicago was burnishing its reputation as “hog butcher for the world,” a bloated City Council seated 70 aldermen — two from each of its 35 wards.

City officials increased the number of wards to 50 in 1923, but in a rare show of efficiency, they cut the number of aldermen to 50, or one per ward.

And that’s how it’s been ever since.

Except when there’s a temporary vacancy after a corruption conviction, which is often.

So here’s today’s question: After 90 years, should the Council go on another diet?

The numbers suggest a “yea” vote when you compare the size and scope of Chicago’s legislative body to other major cities.

We have one of the country’s largest city councils, with each of the 50 aldermen representing 56,000 residents.

Contrast that with New York City, with a population three times the size of Chicago but only one more council member — 51.

Each NYC district includes 164,000 constituents, three times as many as a Chicago ward.

Do we hear “New Yawkers” clamoring for more pols? How do you spell N-O-T?

Los Angeles is even leaner, with only 15 council members, or one for every 250,000 residents.

Council members in the other big cities also represent more people than our aldermen do.

And legislative costs? They’re hard to compare because staffing and expense calculations vary from city to city, but Chicago’s annual price tag of $25 million is, unequivocally, a big number.

Aldermanic salaries top out at $115,000 a year for part-time jobs, plus $176,000 for three employees, and $73,000 for expenses.

That’s more than $360,000 for each aldermanic office, not including medical and pension benefits.

If Chicago cuts the Council in half, from 50 to 25 aldermen, taxpayers could save an estimated $10 million a year.

Defenders of the status quo argue that constituent services would suffer, but many residents now call 311 instead of the ward office, which undercuts that objection.

And how many of the 35 aldermen who’ve been nailed for corruption since 1973 worried about “constituents” when they were lining their own pockets?

That’s especially poignant after Wednesday’s sentencing of No. 35, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, who colluded with her ex-congressman husband to illegally divert $750,000 in campaign cash to lifestyle embellishments, not ward improvements.

Recently, two aldermen resurrected a proposal to cut the Council in half, from 50 to 25, but that, like everything else in this autocracy, requires the support of the mayor.

Rahm Emanuel has flirted with the idea without formally endorsing it. And it’s a mixed bag from a distribution-of-power standpoint.

Emanuel may find it easier to move his agenda with a smaller and perhaps more pliable band of aldermen, but could a Council of any size be more subservient than the current one?

And a smaller Council might actually empower aldermen to think less parochially and more globally about the daunting financial challenges confronting the city, including the pension crisis and privatization push.

But extra thinking might require additional schooling.

At the end of the day, it’s never fun to go on a diet.

But the obesity epidemic threatens our financial well-being, not just our physical health.

So this might be the perfect time for an old hog butcher to slim down.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the
Better Government Association. Email ashaw@bettergov.org. Phone 312-386-9097 Twitter @andyshawbga.



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