Questioning City Council’s size

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Just how many aldermen does Chicago need?

Just how many aldermen does Chicago need?

Mayor Elect Rahm Emanuel raised the question. Emanuel has since backed off the question, saying he wasn’t advocating changing council, just raising the question.

But perhaps, this time, someone might take a realistic look at city council size.

Chicago has 50 aldermen. It is a city council that is the second largest of any major city, and it takes a big bite out of the budget too keep all those offices and satellite offices and aldermanic employees working, especially at a salary of $110,000 for a part time job. Only New York City, with a population of 8.3 million, has more, with 51 members.

With approximately $350,000 budgeted for each aldermanic office, according to figures compiled by the Better Government Association, that’s $17.5 million just for council operations. Certainly that money could be spent in other ways.

Could Chicago get along with fewer aldermen?

Probably, since some other big cities get along with a fraction of that number. Los Angeles has 17. Houston, Texas has 14 seats on council. Phoenix has 8, Philadelphia has 17 members of council, Dallas has 14 and San Diego has 8.

But it isn’t the money. Since 1923, the city has been divided into 50 wards, each represented by an alderman. The idea has been that each of those aldermen is more or less the “mayor” of their ward, responsible for delivering city services and having say-so over business taxes and permits are awarded. Adding that additional layer of bureaucracy to city services only increases the level of inefficiency and condemns citizens to slower and inferior service.

A smaller city council would be a different city council, and would require changing the job description for aldermen. No longer would they be a part of delivering city services, but instead would assume much more of the legislative function of government.

It would also mean a massive and gut-wrenching redistricting fight, redrawing wards so that representation would not be lost, or shifted or drawn out of existence. How do you maintain the strength of council’s Black caucus, or recognize the growth of the Hispanic electorate or acknowledge the influence of the Asian population with fewer aldermen?

While the conversation has been started, again, it doesn’t mean that Chicago is any closer to shrinking its council. No one has come up with any numbers that seem to make sense, as if the number of 50 makes any sense. Should there be only 25 members of council, or 15, or nine? Should a smaller council be elected solely by ward, or would it be more equitable to elect some at-large?

And the process of changing council size won’t be accomplished overnight. By the time state law is changed, and referendums are put up for vote, and council doing the unheard of and voting to shrink itself, whatever fervor to change the size will probably have passed, and we’ll be looking at the same 50 wards.

But, in these times of shrinking populations and shrinking revenues and growing deficits, it makes sense to take a look at council and figure out if we can do it better. That doesn’t mean that smaller is necessarily better, but a legislative body with 50 members representing Chicago might be something that has outlived its usefulness after 88 years. We at least ought to consider the question.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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