Why City Council members are now attending more meetings

After analyzing publicly available attendance records for meetings between May 2019 and December 2021, WBEZ, Crain’s and The Daily Line found that City Council members overall attended 81% of the meetings they were required to be at.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting March 23.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting, where members used an electronic voting system for the first time, at City Hall, Wednesday morning, March 23, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

It certainly became easier to attend meetings during the height of the pandemic, when they went virtual.

Discussing important matters with colleagues was a breeze as we sat, maybe in our pajamas, in front of a computer, or while throwing in a pile of laundry with earbuds plugged into smartphones.

Going virtual helped boost City Council members’ attendance at council and committee meetings, as a new report by WBEZ, Crain’s Chicago Business and The Daily Line found. Give credit also to newly implemented policies requiring a public record of attendance at committee meetings.

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Even so, some veteran council members still failed to show up for a substantial number of meetings: Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st), had the most dismal track records of attendance.

No one expects City Council members to bat 100%. They may be dealing with other pressing matters in their wards or suffering from an illness, like the federally indicted Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), who said her lackluster attendance was due to a heart condition and having contracted COVID-19.

But a public official who earns a six-figure salary, and was elected to represent the interests of residents in the nation’s third largest city, has a duty to be present at as many meetings as possible.

Constituents deserve no less.

Best and worst

The report analyzed publicly available attendance records for 526 meetings between May 2019 and December 2021. The analysis found that overall, City Council members attended 81% of the meetings they were required to be at during that time. That’s an improvement over council members’ 64% attendance rate for a term that ended in 2019.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) had the best attendance rate at 93%. Many younger City Council members — Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th), Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st), to name a few — were also among those who turned up the most at meetings.

But Cardenas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, had the worst attendance record at 54%.

Burke, who is awaiting trial on federal racketeering and bribery charges, came in second-lowest, with a 55% attendance rate. Brookins had the third-lowest attendance rate at 58%.

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Hats off to those City Council members who took the time to do their jobs — although it was easier for some members than others. Hairston, for example, is only assigned to four committees, making it easier for her to show up at the vast majority of meetings as compared to colleagues who juggle up to 10 committees.

Some committees meet more often than others. And some City Council members drop in at meetings they are not required to attend, while others come into a meeting late or leave minutes after attendance is taken.

Also, it must be noted that stellar attendance doesn’t equate to lack of corruption.

Former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) was convicted in February for filing false income tax returns and lying to federal regulators about money he owed to a failed Bridgeport bank. 

Yet Thompson, the former grandson of former Mayor Richard J. Daley and the nephew of former Richard M. Daley, had a 90% attendance rate.

In public, for all to see

Hairston credited virtual meetings for turning around her previous low attendance rate.

Now that many coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and more meetings will be conducted in person, let’s hope that Hairston and other council members keep up the momentum.

There’s added pressure on them because of the lawsuit filed by WBEZ against former Budget Committee chairwoman Austin, who had refused to produce the committee’s attendance sheets. Now, committee chairpersons have to take roll call at meetings, and attendance records are placed on the city clerk’s website for the public to see.

As a result, Chicagoans can now gauge how committed their alderperson has been to their committee assignments and City Council meetings.

Being present is not too much to ask.

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