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How a Charter Would Help Chicago, and How to Get One

Published: Jun 22 2023


“One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Actually 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.

By: Steve Hendershot

Chicago’s lack of a city charter is a striking feature of its government, both because nearly every peer city has a charter — akin to a city constitution — and because a charter could support other reforms. Joe Ferguson, a former Chicago inspector general and now executive director of charter advocacy group (re)Chicago, explains how a charter could help Chicago and outlines the road map to adoption. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS: How would Chicago benefit from a charter?

FERGUSON: A charter is constitutional, which means it is a higher law that has to be obeyed. Without a charter, a city like Chicago conducts its business according to a municipal code. The problem with a municipal code is that in many respects it’s unenforceable — especially in the absence of a city council with coequal powers that provide for checks and balances on the mayor. There's almost no capacity for an individual citizen to file some form of action to enforce an obligation that the city has under the municipal code, which means that elected officials can ignore certain provisions or simply change them on the fly to meet the whims of the political moment or to achieve short-term transactional objectives.

A charter changes how business is conducted by providing a kind of daily procedural and cultural enforcement mechanism. Mayors know they can only go so far in interpreting and applying their powers, because if they go any further, they're crossing into at best ambiguous, and at worst violative, territory. If the City Council drifts into a place of transactional compliance with a mayor, a member of the public can file a lawsuit saying, "You guys can't do this because the constitution says you can't."

What’s an example of a charter provision that would promote better government in Chicago?

For Chicago, the foundation for charter-based reform rests first with the balancing of the power between the mayor and the City Council. As one example, a charter could give the City Council a right and entitlement to all information possessed by the executive branch. That's a game-changer right there, because it means council members can do their own analysis with all the requisite information needed to make properly vetted and accountable decisions on budgets, policy and programs. That changes the power and the efficacy of the work of committees of the City Council.

What are the steps required to create and adopt a charter?

There’s three ways. One is a Chicago voter referendum on the charging and creation of a charter commission. That's a very long process. The second is for the mayor and City Council to authorize the creation of a charter commission — unlikely, because they would be entering into an exercise that might result in a diminution and redistribution of certain powers, including those of the mayor. The third way is legislation in Springfield that creates a charter commission and amends the Cities & Villages Act by sunsetting certain provisions that apply to Chicago, to be replaced with referendum-approved recommendations of the charter commission.

In some ways, routing this through Springfield seems the most likely way forward — but dealing with the statehouse also has doomed past charter efforts such as the one in 1907. What’s different now?

In 1907, it was almost entirely an issue of redistribution of the dynamics between Springfield and the city, most notably with respect to taxing and borrowing authority. That is not the case here. It is a matter of the form of government. And so it is Springfield saying, "Look, we need Chicago to be viable and sustainable for the interests of the state. We need Chicago to be the economic engine for the state overall, and we recognize that that needs to be tied to standards and processes that result in good policy design, decision-making and implementation, and in accordance with well-settled principles, standards and processes of good governance."

How soon might we see that sort of legislation introduced, and what would that mean for the timeline of a charter commission?  

A lot of work needs to be done over the balance of the year. But if that work is done, it sets us up for some form of introduction of legislation at the beginning of the spring session of 2024 — ideally with a lot of co-sponsors that span the partisan divide. If passed during the spring session, the work of a commission could start as early as mid-2024. And that prospect is real, in part because, based on my conversations with community, institutional, business and political leaders, there is a broad recognition that absent some significant changes to our very governance structure, the city is in danger of losing some of its competitive advantages.