“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.
Charles Modica is the city of San Diego's independent budget analyst, an office created in 2006 when the city moved to a “strong mayor” form of government. The 11-person Office of the Independent Budget Analyst is intended to provide San Diego’s City Council with objective advice regarding the mayor’s budget and city finances. Chicago aldermen used the San Diego office as a model when designing the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, but Chicago’s version has only a couple of employees and has struggled to gain traction. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
CRAIN'S: How does an independent budget office benefit a city’s fiscal process?
MODICA: Council members need to have an ability to understand what's in the budget that’s presented to them — and what’s not.
The information included in proposed budgets can be very simple or very complicated, and either extreme makes it very difficult for a council that is not involved in the development of a budget to be able to put their stamp on it. That's where the role of budget analysts comes in: We will take that information and hopefully make it a little bit more digestible on a level that's meaningful for the council members, so that they can ask the right questions. Healthy engagement from the council is important because what you put on the table very often ends up being in large part what ultimately gets adopted.
You mentioned the 80-plus-hour weeks that you and your staff put in so that your analysis of the mayor’s budget proposal is completed prior to the annual budget hearings. How much of the process is crammed into those two weeks, versus what you’re able to anticipate beforehand?
We work with the operations and finance staff in the city throughout the year, so we're not coming in cold when the mayor releases a proposed budget; it’s a language that we speak. Additionally, our council creates a budget priorities resolution each year prior to the release of the budget, so when we get the budget we're able to look to see if the council’s priorities are included.
Did that level of cooperation with the city’s operations and finance teams come naturally?
Our city charter specifically calls out that the independent budget analyst needs to be given access to all the information that operations and finance have. But when you come in brand new to a system, people don't know what your objective is, and they can get territorial.
A couple of things enabled us to move past that. One was knowing which questions to ask, having been around the city for a while. The other was developing personal relationships so that people could trust that you’re not out to tear them down or act like an auditor, trying to say "Gotcha." That would make the work a lot harder.
The vast majority of city employees in San Diego — and in Chicago, I suspect — want to do the right thing for the city. The challenge is to convince them that you’re trying to accomplish the same thing, and once we were able to do that, it hasn’t been difficult to get the information that we need.
What does an independent budget analyst do during the times of year when there’s no budget to analyze?
Our office looks at everything that goes to the city council — every policy, every decision, every request for a contract. We prepare reports and analyses on topics ranging from real estate deals to employee compensation levels to how to implement San Diego’s Climate Action Plan. Whenever we think that discussion around a particular issue would benefit from more information or context, we provide that. We also respond to ad-hoc requests from each of our council members, and beyond that we also go out to different community groups to give presentations on areas of the city's operations or finances, and to educate them about the city's processes for adopting a budget, and how they can be involved.
You mentioned San Diego’s city charter; Chicago doesn’t have one. What’s the value of a charter?
I don’t think I could overstate its importance.
A charter is a document that spells out how a city functions, and who is responsible for doing what. It solves a lot of ambiguity and enables the public to understand how a city is run. Having a road map like that is really, really useful, and seems to me like it's a best practice for an open and transparent government.
There's a saying that, "Your past practice becomes your policy," and it’s largely true. But if your past practice is just a nebulous thing that exists outside of a charter, then where is the public supposed to go to improve on it?