I am in the process of rereading "Boss," the hard-hitting biography of Richard J. Daley that chronicles his rise to power, written by renowned journalist Mike Royko. It's a captivating read, and I highly recommend it.
The part I read yesterday takes place after Daley got sworn into office (1955), and is figuring out how to gain as much power and influence as possible to secure his 20+ year rein. His first step was to convince the Republican legislators down in Springfield to help him increase the sales tax and a create a new utility tax. Then, once the money starts pouring in, it gets interesting.
Royko writes, "With the money coming in, the next step was to make sure that he, not the aldermen, did the spending. He quickly moved to strip them of the powers they had enjoyed during Kennelly's days. The council had always made the city's budget. That ended. Daley would create the budget, then almost half a billion a year. It was the first and biggest step in changing the council from a legislative body to a rubber stamp for his administration. Few of the aldermen protested."
After putting the book down yesterday, I thought about what the implications of this move might be. Did stripping the City Council of the power to create the budget really mean that they were completely removed from the process? What does that say about the Council now?
Then I picked up the Chicago Tribune and read the editorial page. It was about Mayor Emanuel's proposed budget for 2012 and here is an excerpt:
"Now the aldermen need to lead Chicago one significant step toward recovery. They need to pass Emanuel's budget or do what they've never been able to do: offer a credible and equally effective alternative.
Note how we're framing the big picture here:
• Mayors propose city budgets, but then the action abruptly shifts to the aldermen. Emanuel's proposal has landed in the City Council chambers — 628 pages rife with difficult and in some cases unpopular components: Suggesting a reduction in the number of police stations is just one among many ways in which this mayor is telling a city long in denial of its financial plight that it cannot continue to do business as it has. "The truth is, Chicago's last 10 city budgets have been in the red," Emanuel said Wednesday. "Chicago cannot afford this kind of government any longer." He's right.
• Aldermen eventually vote yes or no on the budgets mayors propose; you don't see a lot of amending by council members. Those 10 budgets Emanuel criticized? The City Council approved every one. Which means almost every alderman (except for this year's first-termers and the occasional rebel outlier) owns City Hall's dreadful financial problems: Years of aldermen voting for far more spending than revenues possibly could support got this city into the predicament it's in today...."
I see- they have power, but they aren't using it. The City Council's power comes with their vote. They could pass any budget they want. If they wanted, they could pass a budget that looks NOTHING like the budget presented by the Mayor. But out of the last 10 years, the budget has passed nearly unanimously, with votes like 48-0, 50-0, 49-0. The biggest margin was in 2008, and that vote was 37-13.
So what's really going on here? Is it that aldermen don't have good ideas for Chicago's finances? No. Many of them have great ideas-- just follow @Alderman_Moreno on Twitter as proof. Is it that the Mayor, no matter who he (or she) is, always has the right answers? Definitely not. Mayor Daley's sloppy budget last year used short-term fixes like raiding almost all of the remaining reserves left from the politically unpopular parking meter deal, leaving only $76 of $400 million. That budget passed 43-7.
So, I ask again: what is really going on here? Something is clearly awry.
This year, aldermen need to break with the patterns of the past and empower themselves, on behalf of their constituents, to not just blindly approve the budget that is put in front of them. They need to ask the hard questions, provide smart alternatives and use their vote to truly represent people in their ward. After all, that's their job-- no matter what the leaders of the past may have led them to believe.
***Public hearings for aldermen to ask questions about the budget start next week. Keep checking back here for updates.***