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Opinion: City Council Can — and Should — Balance Competence and Reform

Published: Apr 17 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. You can learn more and read other articles from the series here.

By: Deborah Witzburg

Chicago’s City Council finds itself not just at a transition point, but at a sea change. When the council’s new term begins in May, it will have more new members than at any time in memory. Veteran members are departing in unprecedented droves; cumulatively, hundreds of years of experience will have left the council.

In a city government profoundly in need of reform-driven culture change, institutional knowledge is heavy freight. Through that lens, there is a tremendous opportunity to put the old way — the Chicago way — to rest. But city government and the services it provides — or ought to provide — are too important in the lives of Chicagoans to be disrupted while newcomers learn on the job.

To torture a much-used expression, the council’s bathwater has been made awfully dirty by decades of misconduct and misbehavior (indictments by the dozens and five former members convicted of crimes in as many years). The opportunity to throw everything out is a great one. It’s just that we cannot afford to throw out know-how and expertise in the mix.

The job description of an alderperson, in the council’s current design, is a dizzying one. They’re part policymakers, part service providers. They’re expected to parse the city’s budget and make sure the snow gets plowed, to conduct legislative oversight and get the trees trimmed. No one comes to the job knowing how to do all those things — and yet the council, powered as it has been by generations-long tenures of some of its members, has little in place by way of law or policy to guide transitions.

The council does not have its own administrative or legal staff, its internal analytics operation is underpowered, and there is no comprehensive, formalized training for new members. The Municipal Code of Chicago is almost silent on the issue of City Council transitions, other than to require that “any personal property purchased with City funds in the possession of the vacating alderman shall transfer to the alderman’s successor.” (Section 2-8-110).

This is where reform meets governance. The new council, as it works to shake off the worst of the institution’s history, must ensure the continuity of its critical operations. That is, the council must keep the trains running, even as it works to change the direction of the tracks.

It is always easier to identify challenges than to meet them with solutions. There are, though, solutions to be had. It is incumbent upon the people involved in the City Council’s transition — both on the way in and on the way out — to do everything they can to ensure continuity of services and stewardship of information. Outgoing members, ward staff and committee personnel should prepare for the orderly transfer of good records and operational guidance. Incoming ones should be enthusiastic consumers of lessons learned and expertise derived from experience in how to get the work done. Those obligations transcend political differences.

Until the council equips itself with clear policies and good training around transition — as well it should — it will be the responsibility of the people involved to carry forward what we can’t afford to lose while disposing of what we can’t afford to keep. That’s a tall order, but to do so successfully will be to usher in a new era in city government.

A long-ago member of the City Council once famously proclaimed that “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” But now, ready or not, the City Council has a hopeful, fragile future at the junction of principle and pragmatism. The institution must find its way to a coexistence of the competence that fuels effectiveness and the newness that enables reform.