Saturday, March 26, 2011

Would we benefit from smaller council?

I’m sure the goo-goos are going to be grossly offended by what I’m about to say.

But I’ve never seen any good-government type who gets irrational enough to want to burn me in effigy or commit some other gregarious act. So I feel safe in writing these words.

ANYBODY WHO SERIOUSLY believes that cutting the size of the City Council in Chicago would accomplish any good is being delusional. You probably thought Howard Dean actually had a chance to be U.S. president when he ran some six years ago.

Cutting the city council from its current 50 members (one representing each of the 50 wards) is one of those ideas that comes up periodically. Some people want to believe that having fewer aldermen means less in salary and governmental expense to pay them, along with fewer people seeking to do things with government.

Which could result in government winding up being less expensive.

Some people will even cite the fact that certain other cities in the same size range of Chicago (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston) somehow manage to operate with fewer aldermen – somewhere in the area of 15 council members.

THEREFORE, WE SHOULD do away with many of the alder-creatures who currently populate City Hall and act as though they are deities when they walk the streets of their home neighborhoods.

I’m sorry. I just don’t buy it.

I’m certainly not swayed by the Chicago Sun-Times report that implies Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is giving the idea serious consideration. Depending on who one wants to believe, Emanuel wants to cut the City Council to 25 members,

He’d make half of the current aldermen unemployed politically. They’d have to rely upon their law or real estate practices (we just don’t get aldermen who are funeral parlor directors or tavern owners any more) to earn a living.

OF COURSE, THE Sun-Times reports that certain anonymous aldermen are their sources, as Emanuel supposedly asked them about cutting the council during a private session. Emanuel’s aides won’t confirm that he actually is paying any attention to this issue.

Which could mean that the council reaction was so vociferous against the idea that he now doesn’t want to claim it. Why get the council ticked off at him, before he even takes the oath of office as mayor?

So I’d like to think this particular idea isn’t going anywhere. Particularly since the Sun-Times report that put this issue in the public eye once again acknowledges that the cost of maintaining the aldermen and their council committees that do the people’s business is just under $25 million.

At a time when the city government faces serious financial problems, that total is nothing. It is insignificant. Cutting the council is not going to be a means by which government spending is brought under control.

WHICH MEANS THE reason that people would want to cut the council is nothing more than partisan politics. Can’t beat a certain council member who gets on your nerves? Then bomb his ward out of existence!

I don’t like that, because there are times I wonder if the city could use MORE aldermen (although I’m not sure I want the city to return to the days of the early 20th Century when 100 people had the authority to call themselves members of the Chicago City Council).

Chicago by its very character is a city of neighborhoods, and the way we’d get legitimate representation when the City Council convenes is if each neighborhood had its own alderman.

Of course, we’d have to figure out what constitutes a neighborhood, and which ones are worthy of their own representation. Because there are 70-plus neighborhoods that officially exist. When one takes the sub-communities that many regard as neighborhoods in their own right, one could easily get 120 or so aldermen – which would be too much.

YET IF WE seriously talked about cutting wards, we’d get cases when aldermen would be representing seven or eight neighborhoods each, which means many people would get short-changed.

I don’t care how much an alderman worked the streets of his expanded ward. There would be no way he’d adequately comprehend the issues of interest to his constituents and sympathize with their sentiments.

If anything, it would make the remaining aldermen in an existing council all the more powerful as individuals – when if anything we ought to be making them weaker, so that they gain their strength by working together.

There is one other reason I am hesitant to think that cutting the City Council is a good idea. It is because the city government ultimately would have no say in the way a smaller council would be structured.

I SUPPOSE THERE’S the chance that the people might actually get their act together and put a binding referendum on the ballot that could sustain court challenges. But that would be very difficult.

Which ultimately means that it would be up to the Illinois General Assembly (which has the authority to structure local governments) to decide what to do, and how to do it. Does anyone seriously believe the state Legislature would act in ways whose sole purpose would be to weaken the city government influence when dealing with the state?

In short, pushing forward with a desire to cut the City Council in half ultimately would mean doing business with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and his political allies.

Why do I suspect that using the Velvet Hammer of old to cut the council would end up with our local government reduced to rubble, and many of us wishing for the old days when we had 50 aldermen?


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