Independent budget analyst for council needs to be independent

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The notion of installing former Ald. Helen Shiller as the City Council’s new independent budget analyst is one of those bad ideas you hope will go away on its own before it gets personal.

No such luck.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, continued this week to push Shiller as the best candidate to run the $485,000-a-year Office of Financial Analysis, oblivious to the message this sends the public of another insider deal.

I would say that if they can’t find somebody better for the job than Shiller, then aldermen should scrap the whole idea of the independent budget office, except that’s been the not-so-hidden agenda of some of them from the start.

The last thing the old guard on the City Council wants is one more position of power outside their control mucking around in their business. They get enough of that from two city inspector generals, one of who actually knows what he’s doing.

That’s why they’ve jumped at the idea of turning over the analyst office to a former colleague who indeed honed a reputation as a diligent student of the city budget, if not quite in the big picture way that this new position should require.

“I think that Alderman Shiller has combed through our budget in ways and manners that would be beneficial to our Council,” Austin told me before Wednesday’s City Council meeting, touting Shiller’s aldermanic experience. “I believe that she would have more fortitude than anybody else that we would have.”

I’d argue the City Council doesn’t really need a 51st alderman who may know where the bodies are buried in the budget but can be trusted not to make waves without permission.

There are still plenty of other Council members who can remember such niceties as when the Finance, Budget and Traffic committee payrolls were the hideouts of ghost payrollers.  

What the Council needs are professionals with sophisticated financial expertise who can crunch the numbers and analyze the policy concerns behind some of the complicated money matters aldermen increasingly face, such as the botched parking meter lease deal.

Without that expertise, they are too often captive to what the mayor’s office tells them, which can backfire.

That’s why many of us came to the support of Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and other more independent members of the City Council when they began pushing for an office patterned after the Congressional Budget Office.

Pawar is also among those who have been standing in the way of giving the job to Shiller, which I’m sure isn’t winning him many friends.

At the moment, they’re at a standoff, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of most of the Council veterans who don’t want anybody outside their influence making recommendations they may not like.

They’d just as soon this whole budget analyst business went away quietly, at worst allowing them to use the money intended for the office to instead hire outside consultants as needed under their direction.

I don’t like that idea, but at least we’d drop the pretense of independence.

We don’t know anything about the other candidates for the job, but if there’s a shortage of qualified applicants, the Council might be better off hiring a retired suburban village manager. I’m sure somebody at Northern Illinois University’s highly regarded Department of Public Administration could make a recommendation.

Shiller told me Wednesday that she believes I’m underestimating her credentials for the job.

“I know what I bring to the table, and most of my colleagues know what I bring to the table. It may or may not be what they want,” she said.

Shiller said that if she gets the job she would suspend her city pension, which currently pays her $96,645 a year, denying she was angling to collect both a pension and the budget analyst’s projected $107,000 salary.

“I’m not interested in money,” said Shiller, who added that she is quite enjoying her retirement but saw a chance to do more.

“I saw this as an opportunity to do something I know how to do well and to politically have a positive impact,” she said.

It’s true that during Shiller’s 24-year tenure on the City Council, nobody asked more questions of city department heads during the annual budget hearings, even if her inquiries became less pointed in the years after she made peace with the Daley administration.

After four years in retirement, I’m sure Shiller still knows the ins and outs of the budget better than many of her colleagues. But that’s no reason to bring her back without running for re-election.

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