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Reduce City Council, but don’t cut in half

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago loves its “alley aldermen,” those dedicated creatures who spend their days walking their wards, looking for every overturned garbage can.

“Bobby,” the alley alderman barks on the phone to Streets and San. “Get somebody over here! We got a fallen tree!”

We like those alley aldermen, too, but we’re more than a little weary of various other kinds.

There’s the fixer alderman, who will get you a zoning change for a price, and the kickback alderman, who wants a piece of every city contract, and the nepotism alderman, who would put every last relative on his payroll, and the spineless alderman, who does whatever the mayor tells him to do. Let us not overlook the lazy alderman, who mostly likes lunch, and the dimwitted alderman, who doesn’t know what he’s voting on.

Not for nothing have 31 Chicago aldermen been convicted of felonies in 38 years.

It’s hard not to welcome the news, then, that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, in private meetings with aldermen, has been seriously raising the issue of cutting the size of Chicago’s City Council in half. It’s an idea Ald. Ed Burke (14th) has pushed for years — and it’s worth taking seriously.

Our view on the matter is that some reduction in the number of aldermen makes sense, though not necessary by 25. Yes, Chicago’s City Council is legendary for being corrupt and ineffectual, but many aldermen also have a deserved reputation for delivering good ward services, like getting a fallen tree removed, helping to improve schools and bringing in new development.

When an alderman fails to do these things, word gets around and he or she usually faces a tough re-election. That, in fact, precisely explains the problem for 10 aldermen facing serious challenges in the April 5 runoff elections, says Dick Simpson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

We expect that a smaller Council would be more accountable, if only because the media and the people of Chicago would be more aware of who they are and would watch them more closely.

A smaller City Council, given the expanded power base for each surviving alderman, might also be less of a rubber stamp for the mayor. It would help greatly, of course, if the mayor did not have the power to appoint new aldermen to fill vacancies, but that’s a matter for another day.

It’s tough to justify the size of Chicago’s Council when the city’s population has dropped by 200,000 in the last decade, and when every other city in the nation — save for New York — has far smaller councils. The next largest is in Philadelphia, which has 17 members.

Reducing the size of Chicago’s City Council would save money. Not only would the city save a combined salary and expense account of $183,280 for each alderman eliminated, but some ward staff positions would be cut and government functions would be consolidated.

The Better Government Association estimates that reducing the number of city wards to 25 could lead to $1 million in savings from the city’s Streets and Sanitation budget, as ward offices are closed, mid-level supervisory positions are eliminated and more efficient ways of providing services — such as garbage collection — become possible.

A small confession: It can be fun to beat up on Chicago’s City Council. They usually have it coming. But as we researched and debated this issue, our initial glee at the thought of taking an ax to the Council was tempered by some pretty good arguments about what might be lost, including those alley aldermen and the sense of community they build.

But it’s impossible to defend the status quo. Something has to give. Somewhere between 25 and 50 aldermen is a better Chicago City Council.

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