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50 Aldermen May Be 40 Too Many. Here’s Why.

Published: Feb 06 2023


“One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Really Work?“, a joint series from Crain’s Chicago Business and the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government, explores the connections between how Chicago’s city government is designed, how it functions, and how it performs. This is the first part of the series.

By Steve Hendershot

Chicago’s famed political machine is at least mostly dead, City Council insiders agree. More than half a century after the first of a series of federal court orders aimed at ridding City Hall of graft, favor-banking and political patronage, change has finally taken root—the pending departure of Ed Burke, the indicted 14th Ward alderman and longtime power broker who declined to seek a 15th term in this month’s council elections, is just the latest sign.

Yet the framework of the machine still stands: a unique structure and culture of governance that over generations has been fitted and bent to accommodate Chicago’s peculiar politics. 

One example is Chicago’s expansive ward system, in which aldermen have long functioned as “mini mayors” in matters such as zoning and service delivery. Taking the concept of hyperlocal governance to an extreme, each member of Chicago’s City Council represents far fewer citizens than does the average council member in America’s 10 largest cities (not counting Chicago). Chicago’s 50 aldermen each represent, on average, 53,931 residents, while in New York the number is one council member for 166,030 people, and in Los Angeles it’s 256,620 people per council member.

Now, as Chicago grapples with challenges ranging from violence and public education to economic opportunity and staggering pension debt, some say it’s time to consider whether the structure and function of its City Council is well suited to the demands of a new era of government, or whether a change is in order.

As the machine grinds to a stop, “a lot of those who have long benefited (from the city’s governmental system) see that Chicago may not be Chicago for much longer if we continue on this path,” warns Joe Ferguson, the city’s inspector general from 2009 to 2021.

Despite the city’s history of political corruption, the answer isn’t cut and dried: Any substantial reform comes with trade-offs and the potential for unintended consequences, while the quirky current system has unique challenges. For example, while the low ratio of aldermen per resident means that most aldermen are accessible, 50 wards also means 50 ward offices. The city budget allows for just three staff members in addition to the alderman, compared to an average of about seven staffers in New York and up to three dozen in Los Angeles.

Small staffs in Chicago mean that aldermen are perpetually scrambling to keep up with the demands of constituent services—but bringing the staff sizes into parity with New York would add a huge expense to an already cash-strapped city.

“Talk to every single one of my former colleagues and they'll say that their office was either always underwater or on the verge of being underwater,” says Ameya Pawar, who served two terms as 47th Ward alderman from 2011-19. “It’s akin to playing Whac-A-Mole.” 

One reason why Chicago’s government looks different from peer cities is that the city largely avoided several waves of municipal reform that swept across the country during the 20th century.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Chicago’s last City Council shake-up, when it adopted its current model of 50 aldermen representing 50 wards; before 1923, the city had 70 aldermen representing 35 wards. Over the last century, Chicago tinkered around the margins but mostly remained a last bastion of the style of ward-based governance that was popular in the fast-growing American cities of the Industrial Revolution. 

That system has its roots in benefit societies that helped groups of immigrants settle into communities in the 19th century, then was grafted into the government itself, says Ferguson.

“That’s what we’re tied to,” he says. “It isn’t done this way anywhere else.”

Uniqueness is not inherently good or bad, and not every reform has been a hit in every circumstance: Cincinnati dropped its “strong mayor” system in favor of a city manager in 1925, for example, only to change course two decades ago and grant its mayor additional powers. And Chicago’s highly localized approach has its perks: Sometimes it’s nice to be able to call an alderman who wants your vote, instead of getting lost in a City Hall call-center doom loop.

But that approach can go too far if aldermen are re-elected primarily based on ward services, reducing their incentive to work together on citywide issues. And that’s exactly how Chicago’s council has operated, according to former seven-term Ald. Joe Moore.

“Throughout most of the city's history, if you didn't deliver ward services and tend to constituent needs in an effective manner, you were voted out. It didn't matter what you did policy-wise,” says Moore.

The case for structural change is complicated. There’s no expert consensus or empirical evidence that there’s a single, best way to govern a big city. But as Chicagoans prepare to vote in mayoral and City Council elections, leaders such as Ferguson say it’s long past time for a conversation about the city’s system of government.

“Structure matters in a big way,” says Ann Bowman, a professor in the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University and an expert on city politics and administration. “Of course it matters who you elect, but structure can make a difference in how these councils function.”

Chicago’s missing 'higher form of law'

Many of the more infamous examples of 21st-century mayoral overreach in Chicago, such as Richard M. Daley’s middle-of-the-night move to destroy Chicago’s downtown airport or his 75-year parking meter lease, are as notable for their audacity as their consequences.

Can the mayor really just ... do that?

Uniquely among America’s largest cities, the answer is yes. That’s because Chicago has no charter—the thing that would allow external accountability when the city government operates in violation of its own code.

“A charter is a higher form of law” than Chicago’s municipal code, says Ferguson, likening a charter to a city constitution. “Right now, most of how we operate is based on a combination of custom, local regulation and law. The people in power can change those things anytime that they want. They’re really difficult to enforce.”

Each of the 25 largest cities in the United States is governed by charter, except Chicago and Indianapolis—and the rules for Indianapolis’ governance are spelled out in charter-level detail in Indiana state law. When a city government violates its charter, entities ranging from the state to private citizens can sue to enforce compliance.

State laws and municipal codes are valuable, but a charter gives civic priorities “a lot more protection and support and existence,” says Timothy Krebs, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and an expert on urban politics.

Ferguson puts it this way: “Knowing that you can't change the rules on the fly tends to promote compliance.”

There’s a good reason why Chicago lacks a charter: For a full century, beginning in 1870, Illinois’ state constitution stopped granting charters to cities and instead centralized governing authority in Springfield. When Chicago sought state approval for a charter in 1907, downstate legislators amended the proposed charter with enough poison-pill provisions that voters rejected it, according to research by historian Maureen Flanagan, professor emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In the 1950s, Chicagoans again investigated a charter as part of a push for more governmental autonomy, but nothing came of it. Illinois adopted a new state constitution in 1970 that finally granted home-rule powers to Chicago, but didn’t spark much movement to create a charter—partly because of state-level logistical hurdles and partly because of politics. Adopting a charter that would supersede the authority of the mayor and City Council wasn’t much of a priority for then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, or for any of the eight Chicago mayors who have succeeded him.

With a charter, the public would have had recourse to challenge mayoral power plays like the bulldozing of Meigs Field or the parking meter lease.

 “The parking meter deal simply couldn't have happened in most other cities” because the mayor would have been legally accountable for skirting charter-prescribed processes, Ferguson says.

Another feature of many city charters is that they include clauses mandating re-examination. Portland, Ore., for example, conducts a charter review every decade, and in November the city made changes that included the creation of a city manager—with the explicit goal of enabling council members to focus on legislation. 

The manager movement

The addition of a city charter wasn’t the only popular 20th-century reform that Chicago declined to adopt. Many cities, for example, shifted to a council-manager form of government, with an appointed city manager acting as an operations expert. The idea was to make cities more efficient, with reformers from groups such as the National Municipal League arguing that ward-based council members had a myopic view that inhibited the smart delivery of citywide services. In such systems, the mayor often serves a largely ceremonial role.

The model has proven effective in lots of small and midsize cities, and some big cities such as Phoenix and Dallas have city managers. But the city manager position also comes with drawbacks related to vesting significant power in a single, unelected official.

The model “doesn’t really work very well in big cities,” says Krebs, “because the elected officials are relatively weak compared to this professionalized manager.”

Cincinnati had a city manager-led government for decades before shifting back toward a strong-mayor system in 2001. Frustration with the city manager boiled over just before the 2001 mayoral election in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed Black man that sparked several days of riots. 

Now the city has an empowered mayor and voters have a stronger electoral check on their city’s leader—yet they’re dealing with a different set of problems, in the form of corruption that’s resulted in charges against numerous members of the Cincinnati City Council.

Chicago’s municipal code mandates a mayor-appointed administrative officer that performs some of the functions of a city manager. The position was created in the 1950s by reform-minded Mayor Martin Kennelly, but hasn’t been filled since the early 1980s—a 40-year vacancy that could be grounds for a lawsuit if the position were detailed in a city charter instead of the municipal code.

The same midcentury reform groups pushing city managers also advocated that cities shrink the number of council members and add more at-large members who don’t represent specific community areas.

The 1950s Chicago reform commission advocated unsuccessfully for both changes.

“The problem was seen as these parochial aldermen who were often called little mayors because they had these fiefdoms,” says Richard Anderson, a history professor at Moravian University in Bethlehem, Pa., who is working on a book about Chicago’s machine politics. The reformers’ hope was that at-large aldermen would “make decisions based on what's good for the whole city.”

At-large aldermen never materialized in Chicago, but plenty of peer cities have at least some at-large representatives on their city councils—five of Houston’s 16 council members are at large, for example, as are seven of Philadelphia’s 17. 

It’s not a given that Chicago would have benefited from such a change, though. For example, in cities such as Austin, Texas, at-large council members have come under fire for overrepresenting moneyed interests. And in cities such as Houston that have split councils with both at-large and neighborhood-based members, the latter are sometimes perceived as second-class members, according to Texas A&M’s Bowman.

So for better or worse, Chicago retains the same hyperlocal, ward service-driven, charterless council that it has had since the 19th century. Pawar, the former 47th Ward alderman, says responsibility for that structure rests not with the failures of long-ago reform efforts, but with voters who consistently re-elect aldermen who excel at service delivery with little regard for citywide legislation.

“We have the city that Chicagoans want. They have voted for this consistently, and they get exactly the alders that they want,” Pawar says. 

Ghost of the machine

Chicago’s mayor-council system, numerous wards and lack of a charter all affect how the city makes decisions, and thus how it functions. But those characteristics don’t tell the full story, either, because the legacy of Chicago’s political machine isn’t contained within the city’s explicit structure of governance, but rather in the spaces between the lines—much of which could be filled in with a city charter.

“Strong machines emerged in these weak political systems, because there has to be some kind of unifying force that would allow the system to function,” says University of New Mexico's Krebs.

Given the legislative authority vested in the City Council, Chicago should have what’s known as a “weak mayor, strong council” form of government. Yet Chicago is famous for the opposite dynamic, a tradition of exceptionally strong mayors, exemplified by the administrations of Richard J. Daley, who leveled neighborhoods for expressways and a university campus, and his son Richard M. Daley, architect of the airport-razing and meter-selling incidents.

How does the mayor operate with such authority if the city’s municipal code doesn’t explicitly grant it?

Because, for one thing, several city practices discourage council members from functioning as full-fledged, independent legislators, according to Ferguson, as well as former Aldermen Pawar and Moore.

One reason why is Chicago’s emphasis on ward services delivered through the aldermen’s offices. Chicago is hardly alone in asking council members to divide their time between citywide legislation and ward services, but the extent to which service delivery defines job performance in the eyes of residents is unique. That’s compounded by the small staff size within each ward, which makes it challenging even to keep up with resident service requests and zoning issues.

Pawar says he was able to focus on lawmaking only because he managed to augment his ward operation with several volunteer staffers. Without them, “there's no way I could have worked on citywide legislation,” Pawar says.

Another unwritten City Council tradition that undergirds the mayor’s power is the ability to appoint the chairs of key committees. Although the City Council does vote to confirm these appointments, traditionally the votes have been rubber stamps, which translates to lots of mayoral influence over council deliberations. (It was a major break from precedent last fall when the council narrowly voted down one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s appointments.)

When committee leaders owe their positions to the mayor, it’s fair to wonder about the council’s independence. That’s especially true given that committee chairs are assigned extra staff positions; Moore says only after he finally received a committee leadership position and two extra staffers after 20 years on the council was his office “able to stay on top of things.”

The mayor’s control over the city budget, including appointing the city comptroller, is another factor. In New York, for example, the comptroller is elected and the budget process is a months-long affair aided by the work of an independent budget office with nearly three dozen employees that advises council members. Chicago’s version has two staffers.

"On paper, you’ve got this weak-mayor system, but all these add-ons make the mayor extremely powerful relative to the council,” says Krebs.

It’s been 70 years since Chicago last wrestled seriously with the form of its government. As the city transitions away from the machine era while confronting a host of pressing challenges, it has an opportunity for re-examination.

The hard part will be getting it right.

“Re-evaluation is great,” says Bowman. “Knowing what will work is a whole lot more complicated.”