Moving toward more representative governance in Chicago, Part 2

Part 2: The implications for Chicago, and how to take power from the hands of the machine and shift it to the hands of the citizens in Chicago's neighborhoods


We're picking up after a discussion of the possibility of greatly increasing the size of legislatures at the Federal and State level.  Reference Part 1.

Here we proceed to the implications for Chicago and its problems, of which there are of course many serious ones. It's been suggested that we reduce the size of the city council. I come down hard on the side of believing this to be a foolhardy thing for all but politicians' pockets – a proverbial bottle of snake oil (and poisonous at that!).

Chicago has a large city council, it's true. But asking people to reduce the size of the council, or to make the legislature in Springfield meet less often, in the name of saving money by spending less on the legislature, is akin to advocating to the newly unemployed – “save money by shutting off your heating in the dead of winter and eating two slices of bread a day,” even as this fellow has a debt-free Maserati in the driveway of his 8,000 square foot house.

Chicago's problems come in part from inept leadership, but it's not the singular cause.  Corruption is more or less built in to the current system, and this prevents the implementation of the best solutions to problems with multiple complex causes.  The continual failure to effectively and efficiently address urgently pressing challenges is now perhaps the largest problem in that it exacerbates all the others.  The largest benefits to altering the structure of Chicago's government are in destroying the machine so that most of the city government is composed of citizen legislators, and in increasing the proportion of localized control – that way the best and most practical solutions can defeat the most politically advantageous approaches.

The machine, and the centralized power structure and civic culture of top down patronage and punishment that it enables, is a corrosive force of rot on the bones of this city. The problem is well known, but those looking for a quick review of the kind of damage being done can find it here, near the end of the article.

Here's an excerpt:


... an even greater problem than outright corruption is Chicago’s culture of clout. ... Influencing the mayor, and influencing the influencers on down the line, is how you get things done. There is only one power structure in the city... and it brings to mind the court of Louis XIV. ... One’s standing... is the result of personal favor from on high.

[The] fear of being kicked out of the circle looms large in the minds of important Chicagoans.

-- Aaron M. Renn

Here's my proposition: I would amend the city's government so that the current aldermanic system of fiefdoms is obliterated. Details below.


Neighborhood Councils

Firstly, there ought to be official block clubs, but with power. That is, neighborhood councils at the level of a precinct or similarly small area. Let's say only a few blocks. These areas ought to overlap a little. Anybody who legally resides in the jurisdiction, or owns land there, could join these councils (as long as they are of legal voting age). There is no maximum size for the body. But there are two catches. A land owner only gets one vote no matter how many parcels he possesses on the block, and any one individual can only become a member of one council at a time, so large land owners cannot belong to half of the councils in the city nor can people who reside in the overlapping zone belong to both councils at once. Councils can vote for specific membership rules restricting membership, but these rules have to be confined to allowed rules, such as a waiting period of three years of residence before joining. Council members are not on the city payroll and do not work for the city. They are purely volunteers and do not need to be voted in. They must only provide proof of eligibility.  Their official election and vote functions, however, have built-in requirements for procedural oversight.

These neighborhood councils have two main functions, in addition to functioning as a private organizing block club and/or community advocacy body (they are not empowered to make legally binding demands on residents and land owners, but they can do things like set up volunteer based funds to accomplish certain things in the neighborhood, form a neighborhood watch and take active part in community safety, etc). First, they elect members of the ward council from among their own ranks – one per council, no matter how dense the precinct or how many members belong to the neighborhood council. They can throw out and replace their ward council member at will, with only three days' notice before the voted-for change takes place. Second, they have a role in approving developments, discussed below.

Ward Councils

The ward council in each ward functions as the alderman does now. They have a ward budget, they can lobby for their ward, they are responsible for constituent services and local city services oversight and control, and they must approve zoning changes, demolitions, and developments by majority vote. Further, they elect, from their own ranks, an alderman solely for the purpose of representing them at city hall. They can throw out and replace their alderman at will, with only a weeks notice before the voted-for change takes place. All of their business is officially recorded as publicly available information, as they are a public body. Members of the ward council are not on the city payroll, but are considered unpaid public servants publicly held to task for their actions. The alderman they send to the city council, however, is on the city payroll, and is paid a small sum such as 25,000 a year.

Ward and neighborhood privilege, not aldermanic privilege

Except for the three exceptions noted below, ordinances affecting a ward must be approved by simple majority vote of the ward council only.  This shifts aldermanic privilege to the ward council for these cases.  Exceptions as noted below:

In addition to the requirement for the ward council to approve developments, demolitions, or zoning changes by majority vote, there are thresholds for support of neighborhood councils as well. If the neighborhood/precinct council representing the jurisdiction within which the development or zoning change is to take place consists of at least 25 members, then a development or demolition must be approved by at least 25% of the body, and a zoning change by at least 33%. If the neighborhood council is made up of over a certain threshold amount of members, such as 200 members for example, then the required approval percentages become 20% for a development or demolition, and 25% for a zoning change. Any neighborhood council with a body less than 25 members is not entitled to development or zoning votes, but is still entitled to the election of a ward council member.

The ward council can override the rejection by a neighborhood council if the ward council votes for approval with at least a 2/3 supermajority.

These rules are designed to reflect upon the fact that neighbors always disapprove of change around them in greater numbers than do people living a little further away. But they also reflect the idea that residents and landowners in an area have a right to some power over what is built next door, as this development does have an effect on property values and the future of the neighborhood. Since neighborhood councils will vote first, the result of their vote, and their right to testify before and lobby the ward council, will inform the voting decisions of the ward council. Further, ward council members, and in turn aldermen, ought to be beset with issues and lobbying efforts upon which their constituencies insist. The ability to vote these representatives out at any time will ensure that they keep these desires in mind. It is likely that nearby neighborhood councils will advise their ward council representatives about developments not in but near their precinct-area-things as well.

Special ward for the loop

As to the loop, it ought to be redistricted to be pretty much its own ward. The ward council could be made up of loop landowners, with each landowner entitled to one member of the council no matter how many parcels they own. This ward council is special in that a member can belong to this council as well as another neighborhood council in the neighborhoods. This council has no approval or rejection power over development in the area, as this works through a similar process as it does in 2012. The loop ward council elects 1 alderman. Members of the loop ward council are automatically members of the business council described below.

A special business council to balance populist legislation from the neighborhoods

It is likely that with a citizens' city council there is a risk of a very anti-business climate, which can be found in cities such as San Francisco. In order to balance this, I think it wise to create another body, a businessman council. This council is separate from the other council system, and is comprised of the owners of Illinois incorporated businesses who do business in Chicago. These owners also have to live in the metropolitan area. A member can also be a member of their neighborhood council, ward council, etc. This council has the power to approve or reject any regulation proposed in the city council BEFORE the city council itself votes on it. If the regulation is rejected by a majority in the business council, then the city council needs a 2/3 supermajority to overrule the business council. If the business council is nearly unanimously against the regulation, with 95% or more against it, then the city council needs a 80% supermajority to overrule the business council. The business council has no power over the fees and taxes structure, as long as those fees and taxes are not leveed as an alternate form of behavior changing public policy.


All majority percentage requirements are based on the membership voting on the measure, not the total membership numbers.

The key to this system is high turnover, and a demanding constituency -- the people -- with enough immediately potent power to drown out other interest groups, such as the teachers' unions.


There is some measure of evidence that a system closer to this works quite well. In Oakland-Kenwood there is a body called a “Conservation Community Council,” which exists because the neighborhood was designated a conservation area in 1990. Although its members must be approved by the alderman and the mayor, they do have power to approve or reject developments in their area based upon the fact that they are incompatible with the neighborhood. This power has resulted in better designed, planned, and built developments in their area, ensuring an especially attractive, bright future for their neighborhood and a balanced approach to neighborhood change going forward.



Again, these ideas would take the money, the patronage, the good 'ole boy culture, the guaranteed city contracts, the concentrated power of the aldermen, the incentives for corruption, and the structure of corruption out of city government. Nonpartisan would be a factual rather than just a rhetorical description of the city council. There would be no party machine. Pragmatic and sensible ideas, such as legalizing group taxis as opposed to building a red line extension, would have a chance of passing a city council made up of citizen legislators who may give weight to the city's, the state's, and the CTA's limited finances (more on that idea in a later post).

Nearly as important a merit as eliminating corruption, neighborhood groups would have an automatic built-in structure with which to organize in to block clubs, reducing crime.  The neighborhoods would have a far more powerful, organized voice in city hall and in their wards, but they would also have a launching point for creating their own bottom up solutions -- as opposed to merely forming Alinsky-style lobbies that reinforce the top down political structure in this country. Neighbors could form partnerships and found a local business based on relationships and ideas formed in block meetings. And more basically, residents of an area could begin to understand what it really is that they are trying to get from politicians as a response to local conditions. These micro-level political structures would institutionalize the basic building blocks for healthy communities – active, productive involvement. They would encourage the struggle for better communities.  It may be in these merits that this structure could have its most important effects – it may have the potential to vastly reduce crime in Chicago by helping to reintroduce, ironically through government although government in large part co-opted and replaced them, the social structures and local associations that are apparently absent in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. These include neighborhood watch groups, groups of mothers with young children, babysitting clubs, fraternal societies, and more.


This bottom up approach has potential beyond even these councils. All members of the neighborhood councils with children in a certain school's area could be given control of education funds, subject to the oversight of CPS and the actual possession of the monies in CPS (CPS has some kind of decentralized school councils, but nothing like this). Let CPS make recommendations, and the parents make decisions about how best to use limited funds to educate their children. Let the councils fire the teachers and make agreements with the union, on a school by school basis. CPS could distribute tax dollars evenly across elementary schools, and differently but evenly across high schools. And then parents could give more money to their childrens' school in order to accomplish targeted goals.



Giving citizens not necessarily direct control but far more localized representation would put the vitality back in the republican structures as originally designed in states and in Washington. But with regards to Chicago particularly, the elimination of corruption, machine politics, and the influence of money are admirable ends. Chicago's neighborhoods are vastly different in their needs, and need more finely grained citizens' representation as opposed to aldermanic kingdoms. The cadre of indicted aldermen attests to the problems with the current system, but the solution is not to reduce the number of aldermen (further increasing their power still) but rather to take their aldermanic privilege away and replace it with citizens' privilege.

These propositions are not partisan, and do not favor one view over another, or one party over another. They are neutral, and would result in more citizens' representation and less monetary influence in governments at all levels.  Chicago would see its corruption stop holding it back from becoming the greatest city in the world, as it has many times been expected to become. TIF monies would return to communities, where residents might even have the opportunity to be empowered to reduce their community's property taxes in exchange for less monies from CPS, if they so chose. The city would stop wasting money on corporate welfare. The focus would return to the city's neighborhoods, where most of the residents live. Ward councils could be allowed to alter the zoning codes in their ward, and become a large part of the conversation when the city proceeds through its next rewrite. The city might have conscientious aldermen, not beholden to re-election, who would focus on the most essential challenges -- such as the city's budget crisis and the bond crisis it threatens -- rather than press conferences and slush funds for green buildings.

With the passion of its people leading it in to the future, Chicago might be able to forge its own identity not as merely a global city but as Chicago, a global city and capital of the American heartland.  Perhaps neighborhood councils would help keep the city from destroying its sense of place and sacrificing its hard won birthright upon the alter of homogenized globalization. Ward councils and the citizens' aldermen they elect could put the city back on the make with practical, Chicagoan solutions. No pretty words, no for show no-results politicking, but plain and bold approaches to the challenges ahead. This city should not forget the local innovation that saw it lead the industrial age as perhaps the greatest city in the world. Chicago should once again be built, shaped, and pushed forward by its own people first and foremost, rather than primarily by globalization interests.

Similarly, Chicago's future will be best served with a business community driven from the bottom up rather than the top down. All business should be welcomed with a pro-business regulatory and community culture rather than by politicians' offers of taxpayer money.  Chicago was once a nearly pure example of laissez-faire, and that is a heritage that ought not to be forgotten, but citizens should demand that the developers who shape this city know, understand, and become a part of the city and communities in which they build.


Chicago is best served by retaining its own identity in the highly mobile global age when people can elect to live anywhere. The people who live here are the best stewards of this asset. From its sense of place to its 'city on the make' no-nonsense brawling approach to its booming center-of-the-nation status, this city is facing challenges that have put it on the edge of losing much of what has made it one of, and previously THE, preeminent city in the world.

The city needs to step out of progress' way and let Chicagoans shape the future with a new Chicagoan Chicago way.  Localizing the structure of city government could be the key to doing this.  Allowing the citizens of Chicago to push passed corrupt structures and conquer mounting problems will guarantee the Second City's dominance in the future.

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