“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.
The Burger King at 41st and Pulaski is a sort of perverse monument to government gone wrong in Chicago. Its security camera captured the scene in 2014 when Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald, and then five years later it made news again when feds charged longtime 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke with shaking down the restaurant’s owners as they pursued a remodeling.
Burke joined a dubious club that day in 2019: More than three dozen Chicago aldermen have been indicted by federal grand juries over the past 50 years. Indeed, since the Department of Justice started collecting data in 1976, more public officials have been convicted of corruption-related offenses in the federal judicial district that encompasses Chicago than anywhere else in the country, according to a report from University of Illinois Chicago professor Dick Simpson.
The City Council’s legacy of corruption has consequences.
“When people understandably and rationally assume that actors in city government are acting in their own interests and not the interests of the people they serve, that makes it harder to conduct responsible government,” says Deborah Witzburg, Chicago’s inspector general. “Chicago has not earned the benefit of any doubt. We have earned ourselves a world in which people profoundly distrust city government, and so when things go wrong, there is gaping space for worst assumptions."
The pending charges against Burke and Carrie Austin (bribery), who retired from the council on March 1, serve as reminders that old-school corruption is still very much alive in Chicago. (Burke and Austin have pleaded not guilty.) Former Alds. Willie Cochran (fraud), Proco “Joe” Moreno (fraud), Ricardo Muñoz (theft), Danny Solis (bribery), Patrick Daley Thompson (fraud) have been convicted of crimes during the last five years.
And while the pace of local political convictions has slowed a bit, ranking only sixth among the country’s 94 federal judicial districts over the last decade, Chicago’s corrupt political machine “isn’t so far in our rearview mirror that we can say that all of its vestiges are gone,” says Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois.
The City Council’s long history of ethical malpractice is rooted in structural weaknesses that have made it relatively easy to get away with crooked behavior. Aldermen enjoy virtually unchallenged power within their domains and face little accountability, ideal growing conditions for corruption.
The council’s tradition of aldermanic prerogative, for example, has given council members broad authority over development projects in their wards, creating opportunities for bribery and extortion. For decades, the city’s $100 million workers' compensation fund was administered by the council’s Finance Committee with murky oversight, until Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrested it away in 2019 after an audit suggested the program was vulnerable to fraud and abuse.
The City Council draws its own district maps, enabling sitting aldermen to tip the scales in favor of their own re-election. And for decades, the city lacked a mechanism to provide meaningful City Council oversight.
Yet the mood among reform-minded aldermen and even good-government watchdogs like Kaplan is surprisingly upbeat. That’s based on the belief that the City Council will be better prepared to stave off future scandals thanks to a series of changes made by the outgoing council to tighten its ethics code and make itself more accountable.
In 2019, the council voted to bar members from holding outside jobs as tax attorneys or lobbyists and boosted fines for ethics violations. In 2022, aldermen expanded campaign-finance restrictions on city contractors, banned lobbying on the council floor and beefed up conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements for council members.
The council also has strengthened the city’s once-beleaguered Office of the Inspector General to the point where a Better Government Association analysis concluded that the office — which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by City Council members as well as other city employees — is among the strongest such offices in the country, with a staff of 100 and a $13 million budget. The office assumed oversight of the City Council in 2016, replacing Chicago’s short-lived Office of the Legislative Inspector General.
“Those were strong steps in the right direction, and in some cases put Chicago on the map as an ethics leader — which is not something you ever thought you'd hear, right?” says Kaplan.
While she stresses there’s more to be done, Kaplan isn’t alone in her optimism.
“I think we're seeing a new day in the City Council,” says Bryan Zarou, director of policy at the Chicago-based Better Government Association. “In a city where over 60 years nothing had changed, to get this much change in a matter of a few years — we’ve come a long way. There’s still a long way to go, but some safeguards are better than no safeguards.”
Sure — but there are gaps in the safeguards.
For example, while the Office of the Inspector General has broad powers of investigation, including subpoena power, its ability to share investigative findings with the public is far more limited, usually requiring approval from the city’s corporation counsel — a position closely aligned with the mayor’s office. Twenty-seven elected officials in Chicago are currently under active investigation by the inspector general, but neither their identities nor the allegations are public.
“There are widely held and well-founded concerns about whether the corporation counsel is the right place for that discretion to vest,” says Witzburg.
Then there’s the question of what happens once the inspector general issues a report or completes an investigation. In criminal matters, the Office of the Inspector General can refer findings to city, state, county or federal authorities to pursue charges. And while its audits of city departments often include recommendations, they aren’t always followed — for example, in March the inspector general noted that many of the recommendations stemming from a 2020 audit regarding the evaluation processes for city employees still weren’t being followed.
The City Council has the potential to draw attention to the inspector general’s work. It did so, for example, in a February hearing in which the council’s Public Safety Committee grilled police leaders about their decision not to fire officers with ties to extremist groups.
But that sort of follow-up is more the exception than the rule — something that Ald. Matt Martin, vice chair and acting leader of the council’s Committee on Ethics & Government Oversight, wants to change. (The committee’s chair has been vacant since former 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith retired last August.)
“There are opportunities for continued improvement in what City Council does in response to (the OIG’s) work,” Martin says. “We need to make sure as a legislative body that we do an adequate job of holding hearings and briefings as it concerns the fruits of that office’s labor.”
Count Inspector General Witzburg as a supporter of that plan.
“There's huge potential for the City Council to act not only as an audience, but as a force amplifier for the work that we are doing,” she says. Such council involvement in oversight “has enormous potential to shine light on city operations, to bring sunlight into the windowless rooms of city government, and to hold people accountable for things that are going wrong.”
For now, a City Council capable of serving as an ethics and transparency champion still seems far off. How can the council demand accountability from city employees when its members still struggle to act ethically themselves and face a substantial credibility gap?
The Chicago City Council’s reputation is bad enough that one corruption expert says it should consider a rebrand. Oguzhan Dincer, director of the Institute for Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, favors dropping the term in favor of “City Council member.”
“There’s a stigma attached to ‘alderman.’ You hear the term and think, ‘There’s something fishy’ — that’s the perception people have,” Dincer says.
Gerrymandering in action
When an alderman takes a bribe to approve a zoning change or overlook a problematic building inspection, the illicit personal benefit is self-evident. But to eat that forbidden fruit, you have to stay in office. That’s where another of the City Council’s sketchier traditions fits in: Chicago aldermen get to draw their own ward maps.
“They’re choosing their constituents, instead of the constituents choosing them,” says UIC’s Simpson, a former alderman. “The mapping has always been used for political purposes. It’s one of the ways people stay in power.”
The most recent example occurred last year, when the council redrew the maps, prompted by population shifts reflected in the 2020 U.S. census. The point of the legally mandated exercise is to rebalance the population among wards, so that each of Chicago’s 50 wards remains equally represented in the City Council.
Aldermen must adhere to certain legal standards when drawing their map: The population in all 50 wards must stay within 5% of the mean; each ward must be contiguous and compact; and the map “must respect established communities of interest” where possible.
But Chicago’s aldermen seem to regard those requirements as obstacles to overcome, and to disregard altogether the spirit of the rules. In both the 50th and 35th wards, the new maps moved political rivals of incumbent aldermen into different wards, WTTW reported.
In a twist, however, the most egregious move wasn’t designed to entrench an alderman, but to oust him.
Ald. Gil Villegas, 36th, chair of the council’s Latino Caucus, lost a fight with the council’s Black Caucus over control of the redistricting effort. In the aftermath, Villegas’ Northwest Side ward got an unwelcome makeover.
An apparent exercise in punitive cartography stretched the ward eastward by a slender thread that at some points consists of little more than Grand Avenue. A strong showing in newly added parts of the ward propelled challenger Lori Torres Whitt, a Chicago Teachers Union board member, into an April runoff with Villegas.
More is at stake than Villegas’ re-election. The new boundaries mean residents of the ward will be bound for a decade by a map drawn with zero apparent regard for community concerns.
“You cannot define a society according to the politicians’ needs. You cannot create these funny neighborhoods with all these tails and snake-shaped things. This is not democracy,” says Dincer.
During the recent map-making process, a nonprofit called Change Illinois formed an independent commission to draw wards based on community input and guidance from lawyers and demographers.
Redistricting commissions are common around the country. New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Diego all rely on redistricting commissions, while others such as San Antonio and San Jose, Calif., use similar groups in an advisory capacity.
Change Illinois’ map was recognizably geometric, with wards far more compact than those adopted by the City Council, and it was far more successful than the city’s final map at minimizing population imbalances. The commission also relied on a robust series of community hearings to ensure that the boundaries aligned with the “established communities of interest” clause.
The city’s map, by contrast, enables aldermen to advance political goals and enhance their odds of re-election. But it comes at a cost.
“You lose the trust in leadership and in the system,” says Allen Linton II, a Woodlawn resident and one of the commissioners who helped construct the independent map.
Voting patterns from February’s mayoral and aldermanic election bear that out. Chicago’s new map is supposed to be a once-a-decade opportunity to rebalance the scales and ensure equal representation for Chicagoans across the city.
In February, the opposite happened: The 10 wards with the highest vote totals represented an even larger share than in the 2019 municipal election, averaging more than 61,000 votes per ward. And the 10 wards at the bottom accounted for an even smaller share of votes than in 2019, averaging just under 17,000 votes each.
Aldermanic prerogative, reformed?
If you think the term “alderman” is poisonous, then “aldermanic prerogative” is probably downright radioactive — and sure enough, Dincer, the Illinois State corruption expert, considers the practice “a nasty thing.”
But does it have to be?
Aldermanic prerogative is an informal-but-long-standing tradition in which council members defer on ward-specific issues to that ward’s alderman. At its worst, it opens the door to under-the-table dealing and alleged crimes such as Austin’s and Burke’s, because aldermen have singular control over many aspects of ward-level decision-making, even after Lightfoot weakened the practice with an executive order in 2019.
Historically, prerogative-related crimes connected to ward-level building and real estate issues have been the most common causes for aldermanic corruption convictions, says UIC’s Simpson.
Alderman have traditionally had complete authority to make or break zoning and permitting requests, which means a corrupt council member can make bribery an essential cost of doing business for developers.
Former 20th Ward Ald. Arenda Troutman, for example, was convicted in 2009 of soliciting bribes from real estate developers in exchange for her support of zoning changes. The following year, 29th Ward Ald. Ike Carothers pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and favors in exchange for zoning help. The pending charges against Austin and Burke also relate to ward-level development projects.
But there’s a flip side to aldermanic prerogative: At its best, in a city with a uniquely low council member-to-citizen ratio, the practice allows strong community involvement in land-use decisions — something even Dincer praises, as do good-government watchdogs such as Reform for Illinois’ Kaplan.
And in pockets of the city, that’s exactly what’s happening: The 1st, 33rd, 40th and 47th wards all employ variations of a community zoning commission that weighs in on proposed developments.
It’s the sort of community engagement that gives residents “a sense that those opinions and questions aren't going into a black box, but are actually acted upon,” says the 47th Ward's Martin.
If aldermanic prerogative is to continue, the challenge is ensuring that similar practices make their way across the city.
“Some aldermen use what remains of their aldermanic privilege to facilitate a vibrant process and solicitation of community viewpoints,” says Joe Ferguson, the city’s former inspector general. “Others simply use it as a unilateral prerogative for what they think is best. That needs to come into alignment.”
Another potential ethics reform that doesn’t seem to have much traction locally? Term limits for council members. Eight of the 10 largest U.S. cities have city council term limits, and Chicago is the only one without a mayoral term limit.
But Kaplan says term limits sometimes have the opposite of their intended effect. They can increase legislators’ reliance on special interest groups, “because the legislators don't necessarily have time to build up the expertise and knowledge that they need to resist those influences and to craft their own independent policy agendas.”
In fits and starts, Chicago is straining to reinvent itself as a city capable of strong, ethical, equitable government, with an independent and conscientious City Council leading the way.
The goal still seems far off, but as Witzburg puts it, “We are doing good government work in the midst of a generations-long arc of bad government. This isn't the kind of thing that we fix in the span of a news cycle or an election cycle or even a career, frankly. But I think that we are making progress.”