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Aldermen create independent budget office, then let it languish

Three months ago, Chicago aldermen created a $485,000-a-year independent budget office to provide them with expert advice on mayoral spending, programs and privatization.

Sponsors hailed the move as a step toward making the City Council the separate and co-equal branch of government it’s supposed to be.

They bragged that Chicago was only the fourth major city in the nation to take that step — and the first to do so without a voter referendum. They called it essential if aldermen are to do their part to help solve the city’s pension crisis.

Three months later, nothing has happened.

Aldermen have not chosen the new, $130,000-a-year City Council Financial Analyst charged with running the office and hiring staff. That’s the job former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) has been angling for.

They haven’t even chosen the selection committee to pick that person.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), chief sponsor of the new office backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, acknowledged that he’s frustrated by the delay and chomping at the bit to get started.

“I spent the better part of 2013 working on this. I want to get it going. If this office isn’t in place, I’m going to have a tough time voting on the budget. This is a priority for a lot of people,” Pawar said this week.

“If we’re going to get beyond this idea that being a reformer means just saying ‘no’ — if we’re ever going to get to the point where the City Council is more independent — we have to move beyond personalities and put a structure in place to balance power between the executive and legislative branches.”

The ordinance calls for the financial analyst to be chosen by a selection committee composed of the chairmen of the Budget and Finance Committees, three other aldermen and two outsiders, possibly including a representative from the Civic Federation.

The three other aldermen are to be chosen by Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) and Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th).

Pawar said he and his two co-sponsors — Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Michele Smith (43rd) — wrote a letter to Harris in January expressing their desire to sit on the selection committee.

Neither Austin nor Harris could be reached for comment.

It’s not the first time the City Council has taken a step toward reform, only to do nothing.

Five years ago, aldermen balked at then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to empower the city’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate aldermen.

Instead, they created their own inspector general and waited eighteen months—until after the February 2011 aldermanic election—to fill the job.