Follow @csteditorialsThe whole modern history of the Chicago City Council is that their toys are taken away from them because they can’t be trusted to play fair.
Patronage jobs — pretty much gone. The power to grant zoning variances — greatly curtailed. The authority to say who gets their garbage picked up first — forget about it.
Remember driveway permits? For decades, unscrupulous aldermen stuffed their pockets with small bribes from homeowners who wanted to put in driveways. But then in the 1960s, Ald. Tom Keane, who preferred to steal in other ways, and Ald. Leon Despres, an honest-to-god reformer, teamed up to kill that sweet little aldermanic privilege. In cooperation with Mayor Richard J. Daley, they turned the driveway permit business over to the bureaucrats at City Hall.
The latest toy that should be taken from the aldermen is something called “menu money” — some $1.3 million that each alderman gets each year to spend on construction projects in their ward.
In theory, menu money makes some sense. Who knows better than an alderman what curb needs fixing or alley needs repaving? But in practice, as made clear in a report released Thursday by City Inspector General Joe Ferguson, menu money is not distributed to the 50 wards in the most useful way and much of it pays for projects, such as decorative garbage cans, that a city with money problems could live without.
The blatant political abuse of the program becomes obvious when one considers that some aldermen have spent their menu money not just in their own wards, but in neighborhoods that would become part of their wards as a result of redistricting and prior to the next election.
Ferguson’s recommendation, which we support, would be to turn all that spending money over to professional engineers in the city’s Department of Transportation while making sure the aldermen and the public still have a big role in the final decisions. The city’s professional engineers know best what the long-term infrastructure needs of the entire city are, without regard to ward boundaries.
There is a drawback to this solution, regrettably. A handful of aldermen — Joe Moore and six others — actually work really hard to get their constituents involved in how to spend their menu money. It’s a wholesome exercise in grassroots democracy called “participatory budgeting” in which an alderman draws up a slate of possible uses of the funds, holds real public hearings (not something in a ward office backroom) and puts the final decisions up to a vote. You might think you lived in Minneapolis.
But though participatory budgeting has been around for five years now, 43 other aldermen still can’t see the charm in it, and why should anybody believe they ever will? It takes extra work, which is anathema to many an alderman, and cuts into their ability to reward pals and allies.
Participatory budgeting as now structured also is flawed because most of the projects chosen for menu money funding get on the list because of citizen complaints. Squeaky wheels gets the grease. Arguably more important projects, such as replacing a street light, don’t make the list because nobody complains an old street light until it falls down in a storm.
If menu money is turned over to city engineers, that spirit of participatory budgeting should not be lost. There should be timely online postings of potential projects and well advertised public hearings. Better yet (if you’re an alderman), a small fraction of the money could remain under the control of the aldermen for beautification projects such as murals and flower planters.
We’re not entirely opposed to decorative garbage cans.
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