Chicago City Council attendance report card: Sam Nugent best, George Cardenas worst

Council members show up, on average, for about four of every five required meetings, a new analysis by The Daily Line, WBEZ and Crain’s Chicago Business found.

SHARE Chicago City Council attendance report card: Sam Nugent best, George Cardenas worst
Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting March 23. Council members showed up, on average, about four of every five times they were required to since the start of the term in May 2019. Spotty attendance can make or break critical legislation.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting March 23. Council members showed up, on average, about four of every five times they were required to since the start of the term in May 2019. Spotty attendance can make or break critical legislation.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Virtual public meetings and better systems of accountability have sharply boosted aldermanic attendance rates at Chicago City Council meetings since 2019, according to an analysis by The Daily Line, WBEZ and Crain’s Chicago Business.

The average member showed up to do the work of the City Council about four of every five times they were required to since the start of the term in May 2019.

That B average still represents hundreds of absences from committees, where council members debate and approve the rules, taxes and fees that Chicagoans must live by and pay. Every time the city approves new spending, a stop sign, a six-figure legal settlement or a zoning change for a new development, it has to pass through one of the City Council’s 19 committees first.

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And while some of the elected representatives brush it off, spotty attendance can make or break critical legislation. During a January meeting of the City Council Finance Committee, city attorneys had to shelve a $125,000 payment that would have settled a lawsuit with Lenora Bonds, who sued the city after her son was shot to death by the Chicago police in 2013. Not enough members showed up to vote “aye” on the proposal, sending the city’s lawyers back to the bargaining table with Bonds.

An attorney for Bonds did not respond to requests for comment.

Though this is a midterm progress report, covering two and a half years, the City Council’s average attendance score of nearly 86% marks a sharp rise from the term that ended in 2019, when a similar analysis of those four years found the average member showed up for just 64% of meetings. That 2019 tally has been adjusted from 65% based on revised calculations.

The improvement was driven in part by new policies meant to track and publicly report attendance at committee meetings, which the council instituted after WBEZ sued a committee chairwoman in 2019 for her failure to produce records confirming regular attendance was taken. Those who chair committees are now required to take roll at the beginning of each meeting and post those reports with the city clerk at the end of the month.

More than a half dozen senior members of the City Council with poor or middling attendance were unseated in 2019, with some of the challengers having attacked the incumbents by pointing to the low score WBEZ and The Daily Line calculated.

And the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most meetings into cyberspace in 2020, making it easier for council members to log their presence. About two-thirds of the meetings this term have been held over Zoom.

While attendance improved overall, scores varied widely. The poorest records were held by some of the most senior members, including a few who will are running for other elected offices this year.

Virtual meetings made a big difference for some

Several council members, including No. 2-ranked Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), say the ability to meet virtually helped improve their attendance.

Hairston, whose ward includes parts of Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore, closed out the last term near the bottom of the list. She attributed her absences then to work she was doing on a high-profile development in her ward, the Obama Presidential Center.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) attends a Chicago City Council meeting in December 2021.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

“It’s the nature of virtual meetings,” Hairston said. “Last time, you know, trying to put together the Obama Presidential Center, the community meetings, everything, sometimes it was not possible to be down here. With the virtual, then I can be there.”

With a 98% attendance rate, Hairston had the second-best attendance record.

But she’s also a member of only four committees, giving her nearly 200 total meetings during that period — fewer than many others had, as her lower-ranked colleagues point out.

“Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m on eight committees,” said Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), whose ward is on the Far South Side and who chairs the powerful Rules Committee, tasked with getting a consensus on the once-a-decade process of drafting a new ward map. “I am one person. I stretched myself to the limit. For me, even with Zoom, it’s been a little difficult with all the meetings all the time.”

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) chats with another alderman during a City Council meeting in June 2021.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) chats with another alderman during a City Council meeting in June 2021.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

The number of committees and subcommittees has grown in recent years under Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Several of these newly formed bodies rarely meet despite having six-figure budgets.

The number of commitments also varies, as each member of the council is assigned to bodies that oversee different parts of city government.

No one had to attend more meetings than Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who had to balance his council obligations with also serving on the Chicago Plan Commission and Choose Chicago, a public-private partnership focused on boosting tourism. Burnett attended 320 of the 359 meetings he was supposed to, or about 89%, beating the City Council average.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th).

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) attends a City Council meeting in December 2021.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Burnett said prioritizing which meetings and mayoral news conferences to attend is a challenge.

“Plan commission goes on all day … While I’m at the planning commission, this committee meeting is going on,” Burnett said, noting with a laugh that he agrees with the City Council’s most prolific public commenter, George Blakemore, who “complained about how we have all these meetings at the same time, he can’t go to all of them.”

But the rise in virtual meetings has almost eliminated double-booking, in which several committee meetings started at the same time, a common complaint at the time of the previous analysis.

Poor attendance still common among veterans

Still, one theme remains the same since the 2019 analysis: Younger, newer council members were far more likely to attend meetings than those who’ve been around for decades. The average freshman attended 91% of required meetings, usually surpassing the veterans they replaced.

New Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) attended 99% of meetings — far exceeding her predecessor, Ald. Marge Laurino of the powerful Northwest Side Laurino family, who attended 64%.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), a Democratic Socialist who beat 36-year incumbent Ald. Pat O’Connor, who was former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, has attended 95% of required meetings, compared to O’Connor’s 48%. Vasquez is a member of eight committees and has the ninth-best attendance record on the council.

“It’s what the people pay us to do,” Vasquez said. “That’s what your tax dollars do. And, like, this is your government, you should expect us to be there.”

Nugent, who had the best attendance rate of all City Council members, agrees.

“How do you know what’s going on if you don’t show up to committee meetings?” she said.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), dean of the body with more than a half century of experience, showed up for just 111 of the 191 meetings he was required to attend this term, giving him a 58% score — second-worst on the council.

Asked about his attendance record, Burke, who is under indictment in a federal racketeering case, said he thinks he has “probably close to 100% attendance at meetings of committees I’m appointed to.

“It’s my impression that I generally attend meetings of the committees I’m assigned to,” Burke said.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) heads to court in January 2019 after being criminally charged.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) heads to court in January 2019 after being criminally charged.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

“I’m grateful this time I’m not in the bottom,” Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said of her 67% attendance rate, which ranked her No. 47 of 50.

Austin is the former Budget Committee chairwoman WBEZ had to sue to get her committee’s attendance sheets. Austin is the second-longest serving alderperson on the City Council and, like Burke, is under federal indictment, in her case charged with taking home-improvement bribes — including kitchen cabinets and granite countertops — from a developer who wanted her help getting a project through City Hall.

In addition to having contracted COVID early in the pandemic, Austin has a heart condition.

“A lot of my nonattendance” was because of being sick, Austin said. “So, if I could have in the hospital, I did it [virtually] by my laptop.”

Some of the lowest scorers seeking new elected positions

The lowest score — 57% — belonged to Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who represents parts of McKinley Park and Little Village and has been on the City Council since 2003. He is running for a spot on Cook County’s Board of Review, a property tax appeals body.

Cardenas dismissed the attendance data, saying it’s “not possible” he attended only 172 of the 304 meetings for which he was required to show up during the two-and-a-half-year period.

“Otherwise, how would I get stuff done here?” said Cardenas, who is Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, meaning he’s one of two council members responsible for rounding up votes for her agenda. “I’m always involved in conversations on everything. I’m telling you, I’m always up on everything that’s going on.”

He did not provide data, though, to dispute the findings of the joint analysis.

And while he spoke to the importance of showing up to meetings to “pay attention to what everyone else is saying,” he also noted that much of the City Council’s work doesn’t happen in public.

“There’s a lot of ways to be an effectual leader, and certainly being here is just one of them,” he said. “But I’m also being active and intentional — if you see me on the floor, I work the floor.”

Several other council members are running for other offices this year.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall in April 2021.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) speaks during a City Council meeting at City Hall in April 2021.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st), who’s trying to get elected a Cook County circuit judge, made it to 61% of his required meetings, giving him the third-lowest record, above only Cardenas and Burke. He said he doesn’t think his low attendance will affect his judicial campaign.

“I try to make as many as I can,” said Brookins, a lawyer who has his own firm. “Clearly, I have other obligations and responsibilities.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who is running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, has an attendance rate this term of 97%

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who had an attendance rate of 86%, also is running for Congress, in the new 3rd District.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), also running to fill a Cook County judicial vacancy, attended 88% of required meetings.

Ald. David Moore (17th), who is running for Illinois secretary of state, had an 91% attendance rate.

And Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), who had a nearly 92% attendance rate, has announced he’s running for mayor.

Alex Nitkin and Erin Hegarty cover City Hall for The Daily Line. Claudia Morell is a metro reporter for WBEZ. A.D. Quig covers politics and government for Crain’s Chicago Business.

Editors’ note: This story has been updated to correct attendance rates for individual aldermen and the City Council’s overall attendance rate after aldermen were mistakenly counted as absent from meetings for which no records were available. This change increased the City Council’s overall attendance rate by 5 percentage points to 86% and shifted some aldermanic rankings. For more information, see this data explainer.

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