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Two aldermen resurrect idea of cutting City Council in half

Chicago City Council | Sun-Times files

Chicago City Council | Sun-Times files

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Updated: September 5, 2013 6:53AM

A pair of independent Chicago aldermen are resurrecting a politically-volatile idea to save millions and set the tone for the belt-tightening that lies ahead by cutting the nation’s second-largest City Council in half.

As mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel broached the subject of going from 50 to 25 aldermen, only to choose the political path of least resistance — by eliminating three of the Council’s 19 standing committees and cutting Council spending by 20 percent.

Now, Aldermen Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Ameya Pawar (47th) are revisiting the idea to begin to chip away at the city’s $338.7 million shortfall and perhaps turn a City Council that’s even more of a rubber stamp for Emanuel than it was for his predecessor into a more deliberative body.

“For the last six years, I’ve been representing nearly a double-sized ward. I don’t think I’m all that special. If I can do it, my colleagues could do it as well. It’s a lot of work and an incredible volume. But it can be done,” said Reilly, who has been inundated by the population surge in his downtown ward.

“It would certainly cut several million dollars out of the budget. It would also demand more accountability from fewer aldermen representing more geography. To some extent, it also could result in more divided roll calls. You could end up having some interesting debate, which has been generally lacking.”

Pawar acknowledged that the millions saved would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to next year’s $338.7 million shortfall and the $1 billion gap Chicago is facing in 2015 without substantive pension reform.

But he said, “We are where we are today because we’ve always looked at Chicago as 50 little fiefdoms…If everything is on the table when it comes to how we deliver services, then the City Council should be on the table as well. I don’t think anything should be a sacred cow.”

Earlier this year, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers analyzed 30 divided roll calls that took place in the first two years of Emanuel’s administration. They concluded that Emanuel enjoyed more iron-fisted control over the Council than former mayors Richard M. Daley, Richard J. Daley or Ed Kelly, co-founder of the Democratic machine.

Pawar agreed with Reilly that the political landscape could change if the City Council were cut in half.

“It’ll ensure that the City Council starts looking at things more globally and also strengthen the City Council. It gets harder to pick people off” when you only need 13 votes to pass or block an ordinance, Pawar said.

Pawar noted that most of the legislation that moves through the Council is tied to an alderman’s “hyper-local” focus — like stop signs and sidewalk cafes.

“If you remove those legislative functions so people are worried about more global issues, possibly the parking meter deal wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“We moved to grid-based garbage. We’re centralizing a lot of these functions. As we do that and make things more efficient, shouldn’t we also be looking at things more globally? The way you get to a more global view is to reduce the size of the City Council so you have aldermen serving more constituents and broader interest groups.”

Chicago taxpayers currently spend $20.2 million-a-year to maintain 50 aldermen and an additional $6.6 million-a-year for the 16 standing committees and legislative reference bureau.

The City Council’s handpicked inspector general has an additional budget of $354,000-a-year.

Emanuel also has thrown his support behind a plan to create a $250,000-a-year independent budget office that would help the Council analyze the mayor’s spending and privatization plans and suggest cost-cutting and revenue-raising alternatives. Sponsors, including Pawar, are insisting that’s nowhere near enough.

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.

But now that Chicago’s ward boundaries have been re-drawn to coincide with a 200,000 person decline in the city’s population over the last decade, Reilly and Pawar say it’s a conversation worth resurrecting.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader, is not so sure.

“While saving every dollar is a good thing, the amount of money this would save is negligible compared to the shortfall this year and contemplated shortfall in the next two years, given the pension problems that exist,” O’Connor said.

“If in fact you were to do that, the delivery of services would be considerably changed. You would essentially be doubling the geographic area each alderman represents and, to the extent that we try to police and bring services to our wards, it would hamper our efforts. I’m not sure people’s expectations would be met based upon the current delivery of services.”

Still, O’Connor did not dismiss the idea completely.

“It’s obviously a discussion that’s taken place previously. If that’s the will of the body and the General Assembly, that’s fine,” he said.

When Emanuel broached the touchy subject two and half years ago, he claimed to have done it so aldermen would “understand the appetite for change” among Chicago voters.

“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 then.

“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.”

He added, “This was an election about change and reform. The public is ready for it. And that means the City Council itself cannot be immune from it….To solve the type of structural challenges [Chicago faces], we are going to ask our constituents to also accept change and the City Council will be part of it.”

At the time, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), now chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, vowed to resist any attempt to shrink the size of the City Council.

“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,” Brookins said then.

“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.”

Emanuel subsequently chose to eliminate just three of the Council’s 19 committees, disappointing Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, who has long pushed for fewer aldermen.

“Why do so many other major cities operate with so many fewer council members? Los Angeles, larger in population and area, operates with only 15. Houston has 14. Philadelphia has 17,” Msall told the Chicago Sun-Times when Emanuel first raised the idea.

“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 Reilly and Pawar succeed in reopening the debate, they could find an ally in Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s $2.1 million-a-year Finance Committee.

Twice in the last 18 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. 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’d have more constituents. But they’d be more easily identified,” he said in 2002.

Earlier this week, the Emanuel administration released an annual financial analysis that includes a $338.7 million shortfall in next year’s budget that balloons to $1 billion in 2015 without pension reform.

In 2015, the city is required by state law to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.

Budget Director Alex Holt took sales and property taxes off the table to close the 2014 gap. But she refused to rule out other tax and fee hikes after yet another round of cost-cutting that might include layoffs.

As for the pension gap, Holt reiterated Emanuel’s longstanding mantra that there will be no discussion of additional revenues, which will almost certainly be needed to meet union leaders halfway until there is pension reform.

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