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Aldermen keep budget’s dirty laundry closeted away: Brown

Updated: January 12, 2014 6:39AM

Saw a funny thing at the City Council Budget Committee meeting Tuesday.

Three influential aldermen and a top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel retreated to a closet to work out their differences over creation of a new independent budget office to advise aldermen on financial matters.

Then they shut the door when reporters got too nosy about observing them.

What’s really funny is that this practically amounted to government in the sunshine compared to how things normally are done at City Council, where such differences are usually smoothed over in advance.

It all started when Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) tried to throw a monkey wrench into plans to create the independent budget office by stripping away funding intended to staff it.

He contends it makes more sense for the City Council to hire outside consultants as needed to analyze complex financial issues instead of creating a whole new year-round staff.

This in itself was unusual in that the City Council just approved Emanuel’s budget two weeks earlier with many aldermen praising the mayor for supporting their efforts to establish the budget office and none complaining about it.

While Beale was going it alone publicly in bucking the mayor, we can safely assume he was getting some attaboys from colleagues who are also not enamored of the budget office, especially after the mayor made them each give up $3,000 from their office expense allowance to help fund it.

Beale’s protests put Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), the Budget Committee chairman, on the spot. She and Beale are allies, but as Budget chairman, she’s not supposed to be allowing anybody to dismantle the mayor’s budget two weeks after it was approved.

Thus ensued a rotating effort at shuttle diplomacy involving Austin, Beale and Maria Guerra, the mayor’s liaison to the City Council, who called them one at a time out of the Council chambers and into the backroom to try to put out the fire.

At some point, Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), the City Council pro tempore, joined in the festivities, too.

When reporters started watching, the foursome retreated into the Council’s “copying room,” which as I say is really nothing more than a glorified closet and probably served as such in a previous era.

Then someone stepped up right outside the door to take a photo (OK, it was our own dynamo Fran Spielman), and they shut the door.

Emerging minutes later, everyone put on a happy face and made nice as if it was all a big misunderstanding.

Austin said she was sending Beale’s proposal to cut the funding back to a sub-committee, promised to move ahead Wednesday with the ordinance that actually creates the budget office, and vowed to allow Beale to try to resurrect his plan later, which seems rather contradictory.

Beale smiled and acted like everything was great.

I wish I could tell you what REALLY happened.

But there was something even funnier that I hadn’t previously noticed.

That independent budget office will not be officially known as the independent budget office.

It will be called the City Council Office of Financial Analysis.

“Independent” is just not a word with which many people are comfortable at City Hall, not even the folks we might have once considered to be independent, who prefer to call themselves progressives these days.

It’s just as well because the Office of Financial Analysis will be about as independent as the City Council itself, which means not very.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Office of Financial Analysis to issue a report contradicting the mayor’s office on the wisdom of some future Emanuel initiative.

As designed, the new office will basically be controlled by Austin and Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke, or their future successors.

Burke could tell you that the Finance Committee itself served as a very efficient independent budget office back when Harold Washington was mayor and the Council majority had a desire to keep its chief executive check. But he won’t because those are considered the bad old days.

The not-so-independent Office of Financial Analysis remains a good idea that aldermen should approve without delay. The added expertise will come in handy when aldermen confront the daunting budget challenges ahead that won’t fit into a closet.

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