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New mayor, Council go with the status quo

Updated: June 22, 2011 6:59PM

For all those looking for real change in Chicago city government (not that I’m convinced there’s all that many of you), I hate to tell you, but the first meeting of the new City Council looked an awful lot like most any meeting of the old City Council.

Make no mistake, there was one major difference that even I noticed: a short Jewish guy standing at the mayor’s rostrum instead of a short Irish guy.

And there were 15 new faces spread out before him in the Council seats who weren’t sitting there when the year started.

But it could be years before those new faces find their voices, while in the old faces sitting in the seats of power that count the most, the only noticeable difference were a few more gray hairs on top of some heads or a few less hairs at all.

And when you got down to the substance of matters, nothing happened that would lead you to believe things are really going to be all that different at City Hall now that Rahm Emanuel is running the show instead of Richard M. Daley.

I realize it was just their first day, and there’s no harm in going slow. Nobody around here was expecting — or wanting — a Newt Gingrich-style revolution. But as he keeps talking change, the unavoidable conclusion is that the new mayor is intentionally steering a steady-as-she-goes course in his first week in office.

As usual, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), the Finance Committee chairman, remained the focal point of the meeting from his front and center position on the Council floor, liberally exercising his prerogative as the top dog to give the Big Speech on any matter at hand.

As is often the case, most of the Council meeting was consumed with ceremonial resolutions honoring various individuals — on this day a group of police officers who had thwarted an armed robbery, a group of firefighters who had made a daring rescue and a citywide contingent of high school Junior ROTC participants.

It took nearly 90 minutes for the Council to work its way through the resolutions with Burke rising lead-off each time to read a prepared speech from the loose-leaf notebook he uses to quarterback the meetings.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the City Council, it was Bill Gates who once said . . .” began Burke’s speech for the police officer.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the City Council, it was the remarkable Helen Keller who once said . . .” began his speech about the firefighters.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been said that discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments,” began the speech to the high school students.

Contrast that with the bare-bones description Burke offered in introducing the most substantive matters of the day involving the procedural rules under which the City Council will operate and a Council reorganization plan that reduces the number of committees to 16 from 19. Aldermen adopted both in mere seconds — including his introduction — on voice votes without discussion.

Ostensibly, Burke’s powers have been diminished under the reorganization plan because it creates a new Committee on Audit and Workforce Development that will be chaired by Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) and through which most of Emanuel’s major initiatives will be steered.

But many aldermen will tell you privately that keeping Burke as Finance chairman was as much a face-saving move for Emanuel as for Burke, because the veteran 14th Ward aldermen retains the support of a majority of his colleagues and will continue to influence any major legislation.

It also seems a stretch for Emanuel to put forth O’Connor as his change agent, when he was Daley’s floor leader and remains a Burke ally, which is not to suggest in any way he’s not well-qualified for the leadership role.

Both Burke and O’Connor are highly respected by their fellow aldermen, and Emanuel would have trouble getting anywhere without them, which is why he’s really not pushing a major change on them.

Burke saved his biggest speech to welcome Emanuel to the job — his remarks all sweetness and light in spite of their perceived differences during the election, unless you doubt his sincerity when he said: “. . . We welcome your bold ideas and grand plans.”

In a post-meeting press conference, Emanuel told reporters that what is important isn’t who sits on these committees but “whether you use the committees to bring change.”

I take that to mean Emanuel will judge the City Council the same way Daley did — by whether they do what he tells them.

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