Mayor Rahm Emanuel is wrapping up his first full year as Chicago mayor having accomplished more in one year than his predecessor had in the previous ten.
While the mayor has accomplished a seemingly endless list of quality of life improvements and put the city on a better path for the future, the defining challenges of his term are still to come.
Let's take a look at some of the mayors positive accomplishments in his first year:
Reforming trash pick-up and making recycling competitive. With a new grid-based trash pick-up system being tested on the north side and private companies driving down the cost of recycling pick up, it appears the city will save millions of dollars providing these essential city services.
A multi-year plan to rebuild Chicago's run down water and sewer lines is just getting started. While the dramatic raise in water bills will be excruciating for city residents and should have been implemented more slowly, the need to fix fix city water lines had reached a desperate point and needed urgent attention, which the mayor provided.
While the Chicago Infrastructure Trust is not a panecea that will fix all our potholes, it is an innovative step forward for the city and I beleive will pay major dividends in the future.
While many of the CTA improvements were already in the works before Mayor Emanuel took office, his election gave them a swift kick in the ass to get done. The city, state and Regional Transportation Authority got their act together to finalize federal funding for a series of Red Line station renovations as well as major consolidations/renovations of downtown loop El tracks. The Red Line's south extension is getting more attention and will likely get done as a result of the mayors pushing.
It may seem small to you, but ask neighborhood residents about potholes, tree trimming and debris removal and they will tell you how irritating it is to put in a call for service and not hear back for a year. Under this mayor, the backlog of pothole and tree trimming requests have plummeted to the point that city crews can now respond within just days of a request. This is possibly the mayor's most visible achievement with city wide significance.
Working with the city council to eliminate dozens of useless, expensive city business licenses that made Chicago a hard place for an entrepreneur to get started was also a long overdue reform pushed through by the mayor.
Getting tough with the Chicago Teachers Union on the need for longer school days/years has given residents a sense that this mayor is thinking about K-12 education in a new way. He is not all-in on school choice through vouchers and charters, but Emanuel is as close to that stance as any big city mayor in America today.
Despite all these positive points, it's not been all roses from the mayor:
While this year's city budget was more honest than those of the past several years, no major long term decisions have been made yet. The four major city unions have not seen a dramatic change in their lavish pension or health care packages. While a few work rule changes have saved the city money, most of those changes have been small and unimaginative.
The mayor's latest budget raised most city fees including the water taxes and property taxes. City residents took a big hit in the wallet in Mayor Emanuel's first year in office. Struggling Chicago families got no help from city hall this year.
The mayor brought in an amazing Police superintendent who most Chicagoans think very highly of. Supt. Garry McCarthy has been a bad ass from day one whose knowledge and commitment to big city policing is unmatched. His anti-gang strategy has worked in some parts of the city, though the results are a drop in the bucket.
A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN TV poll shows the mayor's lower approval marks on the issue of crime with a third of those polled disapproving of the mayor crime fighting strategy.
Safety and crime fighting is one of the most fundamental elements of government. In his first year, the mayor has overseen one of the more dramatic increases in homicides in recent years. Most of the killings have been gang related and are part of a larger street gang crisis that has gripped Chicago neighborhoods for more than two generations.
There has also been a notable increase in property crime in the city, including in neighborhoods not known for high crime rates.
Mayor Emanuel may have a well earned tough guy image; but, he has largely abdicated his leadership on the issue of crime in Chicago while projecting a weak and ambivalent image to residents most affected by the violence. We do not know how engaged he is behind the scenes with the CPD, but in public, he barely mentions the victims of violent crimes.
Mayor Daley may not have been effective in his crime strategy but his public outcries were truly heart felt and the city knew he was paying attention. This mayor's public silence has been deafening on one of the most important issues the city is dealing with.
One disturbing trend has been the real lack of any serious ethics reform in city government. For all his campaign rhetoric about a new day of transparency in Chicago, very little has changed in ethics reform from the days of Daley.
Why hasn't the Inspector General's office been given more funding and resources? Why doesn't the city council have a robust, independent watchdog yet? What about the Chicago Buildings Commission and the Park District? These are still patronage holes where efficiency and ethics go to die.
Putting city date online has cracked open the veil of secrecy a bit, but there is so much more do be done, both from the watchdog perspective and the enforcement perspective. The lobbying and influence peddling of former alderman, well connected attorneys and real estate developers on the city council and the Mayor's staff is every bit as corrosive as it was before Mayor Emanuel took over.
The mayor knows he could order more serious transparency with city contracts, city hiring and internal investigations. Mr. Mayor, get it done or everything else will be tainted by a perception that city government is still rigged against the average citizen. Even one cover up can ruin everything else the mayor is trying to do.
The list of incompletes after the Mayor's first year include the most significant issues left out there:
- The resolution to the city's pension and retiree health care questions will go a long way in determining if the city can get back on sound fiscal ground.
- The upcoming negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union will set the mayor's education policy up to either fail or have a chance at major reform.
- Implementing crime reduction tactics and using "clear, hold, build" anti-insurgency strategies learned from the U.S. military in Afghanistan against local street gangs may or may not reduce violence and homicides. Gang infested neighborhoods will not support the mayor forever.
- The union contracts still to be renewed with AFSCME employees, cops and firefighters will all have unique impacts on the city.
As with all politicians, Mayor Emanuel has a mixed record. It is more good than bad after year one, and he has racked up a series of small wins, building momentum into the bigger debates still to come.
The next year will go a long way in forming the Mayor's legacy and the city's future.
Mayor Emanuel seems ready for the fights ahead. I hope residents are as well. It could get ugly.