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“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: William G. Howell and Sadia Sindhu

Six months ago, ahead of a critical municipal election in Chicago, we joined with Crain’s to launch a series that looked quite a bit different from standard election coverage. Whereas most media focused on the personal backgrounds and policy proposals of the candidates, we examined the design of the institution that the winners would occupy. Was a city council with 50 elected officials, each representing an individual ward, best suited for a city that struggles to come together across differences of race, income and ideology?

Beginning in February, as Chicagoans prepared to vote, we asked scholars, civic leaders and journalists whether ‘the city that works’ really does, in fact, work. We sought to inject expertise, debate, and new perspectives into a much-needed discussion about the structure of our political institutions and the performance of our local government.

Now, as the dust settles on another election cycle and our series comes to a close, it’s important to take stock of what we learned. Quite a bit, it turns out.

Crain’s contributor Steve Hendershot masterfully set the stage each month, producing deeply reported stories that weighed trade-offs, connected dots, and leveraged expertise within and beyond Chicago. These stories compared Chicago’s city council to other local legislative bodies across the country, illuminated its troubled budget process, reviewed its history of corruption, exposed the downstream effects of aldermanic power and representation on hot-button social policies, and more.

From these stories as well as the opinion pieces and programming that followed, we came to appreciate just how unusual Chicago’s city council really is. Here, each alderperson represents 54,000 Chicago residents. In New York, by contrast, alderpersons represent 166,000 residents. In Los Angeles, they represent 256,000 residents.

These basic facts have profound consequences for the kind and quality of government we get. For starters, Chicago alderpersons are particularly attuned and attentive to the local interests in their wards. As 22nd Ward Ald. Mike Rodriguez put it, “the people of my ward have a connection to me that they — and I — believe has great value. The more people I have to represent, the harder that would be.”

Other political observers, however, underscored the costs of present institutional arrangements. The sheer size of the council, said some, impedes its ability to organize itself, govern effectively and guard against mayoral encroachments. In the absence of additional governing capacity (such as a more robust City Council Office of Financial Analysis, a chief administrative officer, or operational support and resources for the city council) or procedural guardrails (such as a city charter), the balance of power between the council, the mayor and city agencies tilts in different directions depending on the issue at play.

Throughout the series, experts identified promising reforms to the city council and larger political system. Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, for instance, advocated for the establishment of a city charter that would augment external accountability and stimulate further thinking about the need for systemwide institutional reform. Through her scholarly research, Jessica Trounstine argued on behalf of smaller city councils like Houston’s, which include a mix of both ward-based and at-large council members.

Turning to city budgets, Justin Marlowe pointed toward the need for deeper investment in the City Council Office of Financial Analysis to give council members meaningful input on spending plans. To reduce corruption, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg advocated for clear policies and good training around electoral transitions for the city council.

Each of these ideas has real merit. From our vantage point, though, their articulation is just a start. If we are to meet the challenges that have plagued Chicago for so long, we need to lean further into this conversation about the institutions that govern our city. Individual testimonials that lament the pervasive gridlock and dysfunction are not enough. To make real progress, we need to put our institutions squarely in our sights and invite prolonged scrutiny and debate about how we might reform them.

Exactly 100 years have passed since the size and structure of Chicago’s city council was set. It’s long past time to think anew about what kind of city council — and with it, what kind of city government — we need to meet our present policy challenges. May ‘One City, 50 Wards’ serve as just the start of a much longer investigation into the institutional reforms needed to build a better Chicago.