From ProPublica‘s Mick Dumke:
The Chicago City Council’s Transportation Committee has an annual budget of more than $467,000 to cover expenses related to its work on legislation and government oversight.
But little of that work was on display during the committee’s March 6 meeting.
“Fairly quick agenda this morning,” the committee chair, Anthony Beale, said at the start. He and the six other aldermen then ran through its 70-page agenda in about 23 minutes, approving dozens of ordinances that dealt with hyperlocal administrative matters such as signs, awnings, light fixtures or sidewalk cafes for particular addresses.
That was typical for Beale’s committee. While it rarely does in-depth legislative work, the committee and its budget have been far more valuable for Beale as perks.
Beale, alderman of the far South Side 9th Ward, has used committee funds to hire employees — eight were on the payroll as of December — though he acknowledged they don’t spend all their time on committee work. He’s spent Transportation Committee money on his own transportation, including payments on a Chevy Tahoe SUV and thousands of dollars in parking expenses. And committee funds have gone toward furniture for his City Hall office, including a bourbon cherry wardrobe cabinet, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Transportation Committee isn’t an outlier.
At great cost to taxpayers, the City Council’s 16 legislative committees are the heart of a favor-trading system that’s enabled mayors to rule like monarchs distributing favors to loyalists. At the same time, the committees have failed to provide even basic oversight of city government.
Many meet infrequently, and when they do, they frequently rubber-stamp agendas in a matter of minutes — often without a quorum of half the members. The budgets for the committees added up to $5.8 million in 2018, but the amount each committee receives is not tied to the volume of legislation it reviews or the regularity of its meetings.
Instead, funding appears more closely aligned with tradition and the clout of the chairs.
Chicago aldermen have also made it almost impossible for the public to see what they’re up to. Committee meeting schedules are posted online and meetings are open to the public, but they’re not broadcast, recorded or transcribed — unless a chair makes arrangements.
The topper: The council has passed laws to make sure committee operations are kept from any oversight. In 2016, aldermen voted 25-23 to kill a proposal to allow the city’s inspector general to investigate and audit the council. Aldermen then passed a substitute ordinance that explicitly blocked the inspector general from looking into many council functions, including committee spending.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who will be sworn in with aldermen on Monday, has called for changing the law so the inspector general can audit the council and its committees. She and key aldermen continue to negotiate over who will lead the committees. As current chairs maneuver to hold onto power, reformers say it’s time for significant changes.
City Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Lightfoot and the new council face an urgent need to open the books and bring accountability “with respect to budgets, expenditures, staffing and operations at both the whole Council and Committee levels.”
“Government cannot fully escape corruption, mismanagement and waste without accountability,” Ferguson wrote in a statement responding to ProPublica Illinois’ findings. “That applies as equally to a legislative body as it does an executive, and even more so in Chicago, with its history of a weak, compliant City Council most noted for a decades-long trail of corruption. At this moment in the City’s history, both the public and the incoming Mayor desperately need a productively engaged City Council that fully inhabits its legislative oversight responsibility.”
In most legislative bodies, members pick their own leaders and committee chairs. The Chicago City Council’s rules say that’s what aldermen should do as well. For decades, though, the mayor has picked council committee chairs. It’s no secret at City Hall that only aldermen who support the mayor’s initiatives are rewarded with the posts, though they often claim otherwise.
As Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. tells it, he was shocked when, in 2007, former Mayor Richard M. Daley offered to make him chair of the Special Events Committee. Burnett had never led a committee before. And he had been pushing an affordable housing plan that was more aggressive than the mayor wanted.
“I thought there might be a hit out on me,” Burnett joked. Instead, Daley came up with a watered-down affordable housing plan. After Burnett signed on, “the next thing I knew, I got a committee.”
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