BGA: Cut the size of City Council

By Heather McGraw

With the elections nearing, possible ways to save the city money have emerged, which includes slashing the price tag of keeping 50 aldermen in the City Council.

A report released on Dec. 10 by the Better Government Association suggested reducing the number of aldermen by half could save the city roughly $2.7 million in salary payouts and another $4.4 million for the three staff members per aldermen.

“When you think about cutting levels of government and cutting pieces of government you have to think about whether or not those pieces of government are actually providing services that are necessary to its citizens,” said Emily Miller, policy and government affairs coordinator of the BGA.

Miller said when it comes to the things like garbage pickup and snow removal, there are certain areas of the ward structure that may not be working as efficiently as possible.

“At some point, people are not getting the services they need,” Miller said. “I don’t know what that magic number [of aldermen] is, but I know there’s nothing about the number 50.”

According to her, past studies have suggested reducing the number of aldermen in Chicago to 25 or 17 may make more sense and save the city money.

The report compares the average number of constituents per alderman in Chicago to the numbers in New York and L.A., which both have a much higher ratio.

While Chicago’s 50 aldermen represent an average of 57,025 constituents, New York’s 51 aldermen represent an average of 164,547 constituents and L.A.’s 15 aldermen represent an average of 255,458 constituents.

Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward) thinks this is an unrealistic comparison according to Tom Gradel, Fioretti’s spokesman.

“We’re not able to make that comparison because we don’t know exactly what the responsibilities are of the aldermen in New York and L.A.,” Gradel said.

He said it’s important for constituents to understand the aldermen’s function in Chicago.

“Our aldermen are not just legislators; they are actually an entry point and an on-button for their wards,” Gradel said.

Gradel said Fioretti opposes reducing the number of aldermen because he doesn’t believe it would save money.

Chicago set the number of aldermen at 50 in 1923, with one alderman per ward. Before that, there were 35 wards with two aldermen per ward, putting the total number of aldermen at 70.

“The emphasis is on the fact it’s historically set and changing it would cause all kinds of problems,” Gradel said.

He also said because aldermen have established relationships with the citizens and organizations they currently represent, adding another group of constituents would likely mean unequal treatment of the two groups.

“Politically it’s not a smart thing to do,” Gradel said.

Dick Simpson, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former city alderman, thinks the focus should be put on the number of committees instead.

The City Council currently has 19 committees, such as the Committee on Aviation, the Committee on Health and the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics. Each committee has authority regarding any matters or departments that fall under its specific jurisdiction.

“I think the City Council is probably at the right size, but there are too many City Council committees and those ought to be cut from 19 to 9 or 10,” Simpson said. “Money ought to be saved that way.”

He believes the aldermen are part of the problem, but a possible solution may be in the election of better candidates.

“The City Council has been a rubber- stamp, and it doesn’t work well,” Simpson said. “The problem isn’t with the number of aldermen but how the aldermen behave.