The City of Chicago has an excellent vehicle for gauging public opinion on important policy issues: Advisory referendums — questions that appear on an election ballot, along with the political matchups.
They can’t change anything because they’re not binding, but the outcome — the percentage of “yes” and “no” votes — can help aldermen decide whether to turn questions into legislation.
Unfortunately, the Emanuel administration and its City Council majority have been playing politics with the referendum process to keep questions off the ballot that deal with the power of the mayor’s office — something Emanuel apparently doesn’t want the voters to weigh in on.
By law there can only be three questions on any election ballot, so the mayor’s Council allies have been filling the last few ballots with general questions that crowd out controversial inquiries Emanuel’s opponents in the Council’s progressive caucus want voters to consider.
The most glaring example is whether Chicago should have an elected school board, like every other Illinois school district, instead of a board handpicked by the mayor.
That’s been a hot-button issue in recent years, and Council progressives have tried to put the question on the last three election ballots.
The Better Government Association hasn’t taken a position on the issue, but city voters deserve a chance to be heard, and up to now they haven’t been able to because each election the mayor’s office teams up with its Council majority to put three other questions on the ballot first.
Many of those questions are legitimate: Stricter gun laws? More school funding? Mandatory paid sick leave? Public financing of some elections? Higher taxi fares?
But really — no room for the elected school board question on any of the last three election ballots?
That’s absurd, and it got even more bizarre recently when Council progressives proposed this question:
“Shall the City of Chicago grant the people of Chicago the right to elect an Independent Airport Authority to provide independent oversight and management of O’Hare and Midway Airports?”
In other words, strip the mayor of his control over the airports.
The mayor doesn’t want voters weighing in on that one either, so his Council allies made a feel-good question about prioritizing infrastructure projects the third and final item on this November’s ballot, leaving no room for the airport question.
Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman reported that Ald. Scott Waguespack, a leader of the progressive bloc and a frequent Emanuel critic, was disgusted by the “parliamentary trick” that allowed the Council majority to maneuver the infrastructure question onto the agenda at last week’s Council meeting, even though it apparently failed a committee vote a week earlier.
“The rules are very clear,” Waguespack said. “A failed vote means you have a failed vote. You can’t find new ways to keep coming back for a vote.
“I don’t think you should be playing games with the ballot. Let people be heard.”
I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing wrong with asking city voters about prioritizing infrastructure projects, but I’d rather find out if they favor an elected school board or independent control over our airports.
It’s too late to put those questions on this November’s ballot, but there’s plenty of time to get them on the next one — March of 2018.
City voters deserve a chance to be heard on those issues, and it’s up to the mayor and his Council allies to give them that chance.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga