Opinion: It's Long Passed Time to Shrink Chicago's City Council
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Opinion: It's Long Passed Time to Shrink Chicago's City Council

As we approach the 100th Anniversary of its current format, it's time to make changes and restructure Chicago's City Council.
Opinion: It's Long Passed Time to Shrink Chicago's City Council

The Chicago alderman/woman is one of the most unique city government political positions in the country and one of its most corrupt. We'll get to more of the reasons why it's such a unique position further down but, with three active aldermen/women currently under federal indictment, another having recently plead guilty to insurance fraud and obstruction and, in the last 2 years, another 4 who have all been under the microscope in their own very Chicago ways, the Chicago alderman/woman never fails to live up to its reputation as one of the most corrupt political bodies in the United States.

Ignoring the high school cafeteria levels of cliqueishness and infighting,[1] the utterly absurd boondoggles, goose chases, and political sidetracks that more closely resemble a Dad who got lost on the family road trip than it does a functioning city government,[2] and the all-encompassing incompetence that's barely a notch above loitering that many members seem to only serve to highlight daily,[3] the Chicago City Council has, for far too long, operated with impunity and inconsequence and the legislative body has disregarded and dismissed the quality of life for everyone but themselves and the highest cash bidders.

As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the council's current setup, a near century of metaphorically banging our heads against the wall, it's time for this city to rethink and reconsider its legislative body and how the council should move forward. More specifically, it's long passed time for Chicago to shrink its City Council.

First, let's take a look at a brief history.

Brief History

The village that would become the city it is today formed its first council in 1837. Residents divided the land into six wards and began electing two members per ward. One member went up for election each year and the two members served alternating terms. They called this the Common Council, as did many other cities of the era.

The first small change came in 1876, when residents changed the name from Common Council to the current City Council. As the city continued to grow and add wards, citizens continued to elect two members from each until they eventually reached the peak of 70 city council members, representing 35 wards, from 1901 to 1923.

The second change occurred in 1923 when the city was redivided into the 50 wards we know today. Each of the 50 wards were given only one council member to represent them.

Finally, in 1935, the third change took place and it was decided the alderman position would be elected to four-year terms rather than the alternating two-year terms mentioned above.

That's it. You're caught up to where we are today. In the long history of Chicago, the city council has had a total of three changes. One of which can barely be considered a change.

Though I've never been a fan of change for change's sake, it sure seems like relatively little for a city the size of ours. But let's keep things simple and take a look at some of the raw data for city councils in other cities to see how Chicago compares.

Compared to Others

No American city has ever seen the type of staggering growth that New York City did overall but, way back in 1923, when Chicago formed the council into what it remains today, our city population numbers were as if on a tech billionaire's privately funded rocketship. In fact, for the period from 1871 through the early 1920s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in world history.

In less than 50 years after the Great Fire, the city of Chicago had gone from a relatively small frontier town of less than 300,000 residents to a booming metropolis of 2,700,000 at the start of that 1920s decade. And the growth wasn't showing any signs of slowing down. By 1930, the city added another 500,000 people.

In that sense, even though a place like New York City was concurrently electing less than 25 council members with over double the population of Chicago, while I don't agree with it I can still understand the argument, theoretically, as to why Chicago wanted to pair down from its 70 aldermen size but continue to keep a larger council of 50 wards and 50 aldermen in 1923. They expected continued meteoric growth.

For a variety of reasons, the growth would slow and the city of Chicago's population would eventually reach its peak of an estimated 3,621,000 people in 1950.

But we're not talking about 1923, we're talking about now. And below is a table of the top 10 cities in the United States by population and their city council as of 2019.

Data as of July 1, 2019 (Per U.S. Census Bureau)[4]

City Population Council Seats Pop./Seat
New York City 8,336,817 51 163,500
Los Angeles 3,979,576 15 265,300
Chicago 2,693,976 50 53,900
Houston 2,320,268 14 165,750
Phoenix 1,680,992 8 210,125
Philadelphia 1,584,064 17 93,180
San Antonio 1,547,253 10 154,725
San Diego 1,423,851 8 177,981
Dallas 1,343,573 14 95,975
San Jose 1,021,795 10 102,200

Do any particular numbers jump out at you? Is there an outlier?

First, you may notice that New York City, far and away the biggest city in the United States, with a population now greater than 3x that of Chicago's population, elects an almost identical amount of city council members. You may notice next that, outside of New York City and Chicago, none of the largest cities in the entire country has greater than 17 city council members and our population per seat numbers are nowhere even close to near the average. Finally, you may also notice that Chicago's current population is almost identical to its population in 1923. The only other city on that Top 10 list that has not grown since 1923 is Philadelphia. But that last comment is a long conversation for another day.

The raw data does beg the question, why do we continue to keep this many council members?

If the largest city in the country can not only have 3x the general population numbers but can also manage its affairs with population per city council seat numbers greater than 3x that of our metrics, and if the second largest city in the country can manage its affairs with 15 council members or less than one-third of our council, and if cities like Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Dallas (some of the current fastest growing cities in the United States) can manage their city limits with even less, why does Chicago continue to find it necessary to maintain New York City sized government? Especially considering that the New York City government's population per seat numbers are closely aligned with the averages of the other nine cities?

What is it about our city that forces us to and makes us uniquely required to have such a large and commanding council?

My sense is that 'business as usual' in Chicago is ripe for investigation.

  • Bernard Harcourt

The Corruption


In addition to its publicly outlined legislative duties, Chicago's aldermen/women are generally given exceptional deference, called "aldermanic privilege" or "aldermanic prerogative." This is an unwritten and informal practice that emerged in the early 20th century and gave aldermen/women control over zoning, licenses, permits, property-tax reductions, city contracts, and patronage jobs in their wards. It was often based on "understandings" among members or on "arrangements" with city administrators who found it expedient to routinely comply with aldermanic requests.

And it is unique to this city.

To anyone with any hint of common sense whatsoever, this would naturally lead to an inordinate amount of corruption through the institution. And, true to both human nature and the aforementioned common sense, the Chicago City Council and its elected Aldermen/women are among this nation's most notoriously corrupt. In fact, the City Council has often been described as the epicenter of political corruption in the American Midwest and some (I won't name names) would go so far as to say the epicenter of political corruption in the United States.

For example, between 1973 and 2012, there were 100 different sitting members of the City Council. Of that group of 100, an eventual 31 members were convicted of some form of official corruption,[5] proving a conviction rate of nearly one-third over the course of four decades.

To reiterate, that's just those officially convicted. An investigation after the 2013 election found that over half of Chicago aldermen/women took illegal campaign contributions.[6]

Even today, as we publish this, there are three current aldermen/women under federal indictment, another former alderman who recently plead guilty to insurance fraud and obstruction among many other rumors, and in the last 2 years alone another 4 who have all been under the microscope in their own very Chicago ways.

And yet, here in Chicago, the city council continues to wield extraordinary powers. Powers that have, over the years, earned them the nickname "The Little Mayors" due to how much power and influence they hold over their wards. I, too, use the term and have also called them "The Vassals" due to their allegiance to the Democratic Political Party and the machine politics necessary to get elected in this town for the last century.

And if you don't believe that last sentence, simply look up the political leanings of the current council below.

Political Affilition of Chicago City Council Members

Old Town Ale House
Yes, class, we know it seems unbelieveable but it's real. Unbelievably real.

The Fix Is In...

I know what you're thinking.

No, I'm not being naive. I'm fully aware that convincing a Chicago politician to vote themselves out of a job, and vote their families and their friends out of the Park Walking Picnic Cake Inspector positions they've been given, is a non-starter. Asking anyone to vote themselves out of any type of paycheck is a fool's errand (cough),[7] and no one with the aspirations required for council will ever even wish this to a vote let alone call it. And, I suppose, though there's no such thing as a "good" amount of corruption, reality and nature tells us that corruption will always occur everywhere in some form.

So why waste the time talking about it?

Year after year, season after season, the names change but the rackets stay the same. And all of us in the gallery are forced to watch the cheap circus. As if expecting Barnum & Bailey's to show up and getting Barney & Shady's.

Nothing changes. You've been watching the same show for nearly 100 years. Why? Sure, a few wannabe reformers and politicians who merely pay lip service to reform when it conveniently serves them, attempts to even talk about it.

Why does Chicago allow this type of corruption to continue? Why do business owners and residents alike, cede so much of where they work and live, their home, to the whims of such a shamelessly ambitious and corrupt legislative body? Why is nothing done to try, just try, something different to fix it?

How do we fix it? Can it ever be fixed?

It's likely that the only way for the citizens of Chicago to reduce the bootprint of its City Council is by citywide referendum. It would take only 80,000 signatures to put it on the ballot and get the ball rolling. Bill Daley proposed as much in his run for Mayor last year.[8]

To make it easy, I propose placing the population per seat cap at 150,000 residents per ward. This would reduce the city council to approximately 18 members, more than enough to run a city the size of Chicago as evidenced by our list above. I would continue to give the elected Mayor of Chicago the tie-breaker vote on any major issues.

Would the simple change of reducing the size of the City Council entirely eliminate corruption?

Of course not, don't be silly. This is Chicago and this is the Chicago Way, after all, but it's a start. Until someone stops laughing off the Chicago Way it will never end.

No doubt, there would still be hands reaching for the cookie jar but there would be far less hands and far more cookies left after they were caught. Shrinking the size of city council would shine a larger and brighter spotlight on those elected officials who try to use every trick in the Chicago Way handbook to enrich themselves and hook the taxpayer, and it would lead to far greater accountability.

As a result, it would force more flexibility to compromise and put more pressure on elected officials to not be so myopic. It would eliminate much of the high-school cafeteria cliqueishness that seeps into the chambers far too often and is an ugly look for a supposedly world-class city.

If anything, it would make our city government more efficient and allow for the city council to address the city's most pressing issues on a faster timeline.

For nearly 100 years, there have been too many crooks in the kitchen. Crooks that have run this town directly into the quagmire it's in and has been in for decades. And now, particularly now, the nonsense coming out of the council on a near daily basis does nothing more than exacerbate all the other difficult issues this city already deals with on a daily basis.

Now is the time to send your local elected officials a message that you're done with the political games.

Fire them.

There is nothing you can do that will send a greater political message. There is no better way to enunciate that you're done with the theatrics and showmanship that makes 121 N LaSalle look more like a circus tent than it does a city hall.

Fire them.

Or not.

At least we won't have to send in the clowns. They're already there.

Notes & References

  1. Spielman, Fran. “Taylor Demands Apology from Lightfoot, Likens Mayor to Schoolyard 'Bully'.” Times. Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2021. https://chicago.suntimes.com/city-hall/2021/6/24/22549149/lightfoot-taylor-demands-apology-mayor-chicago-city-council-meeting-schoolyard-bully. ↩︎

  2. Walker, Craig. “Opinion: A Day on the DuSable Riverwalk.” Chicago Journal. Chicago Journal, June 24, 2021. https://www.chicagojournal.com/opinion-a-day-on-the-dusable-riverwalk/. ↩︎

  3. “City Council Approves Elected Board to Oversee Chicago Police with 36-13 Vote.” WTTW News. Accessed July 22, 2021. https://news.wttw.com/2021/07/21/city-council-approves-elected-board-oversee-chicago-police-36-13-vote. ↩︎

  4. Bureau, US Census. “City and Town Population Totals: 2010-2020.” The United States Census Bureau, May 27, 2021. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest/technical-documentation/research/evaluation-estimates/2020-evaluation-estimates/2010s-cities-and-towns-total.html. ↩︎

  5. CBS Chicago. “A Look At Chicago's Corrupt Aldermen Through The Years.” CBS Chicago. CBS Chicago, January 3, 2019. https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2019/01/03/alderman-burke-chicago-city-hall-corruption/. ↩︎

  6. “More than Half of Chicago Aldermen Took Illegal Campaign Cash in 2013.” ChicagoNow is full of win. Accessed July 21, 2021. https://www.chicagonow.com/city-limits/2015/11/more-than-half-of-chicago-aldermen-took-illegal-campaign-cash-in-2013/. ↩︎

  7. No one really knows who's credited withthe saying, but the old adage applies here: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.” ↩︎

  8. Spielman, Fran. “Daley Proposes Citywide Referendum on Shrinking City Council from 50 to 15.” Times. Chicago Sun-Times, January 22, 2019. https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/1/22/18415981/daley-proposes-citywide-referendum-on-shrinking-city-council-from-50-to-15. ↩︎

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