City Council urged to declare independence from Lightfoot, by choosing own committee chairs

The Better Government Association published a policy statement renewing its call for the City Council to shed its reputation as a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors.

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Nicole Lee speaks during a special meeting after she is sworn is as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council as the new 11th Ward alderperson, at City Hall, Monday afternoon, March 28, 2022. Lee will replace convicted former 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson.

The Better Government Association has long clamored for the City Council to shed its reputation as a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors by reorganizing itself.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The Chicago City Council is being urged to declare its independence from Mayor Lori Lightfoot by choosing its own committee chairs instead of ceding that power to the mayor.

The Better Government Association said it has long clamored for the City Council to shed its reputation as a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors by reorganizing itself.

Now, the BGA is amplifying that position in a policy statement posted on its website and distributed to the news media.

Bryan Zarou, the BGA’s director of policy, was inspired to weigh in on Friday after Ald. Matt Martin (47th) introduced a resolution at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. It calls for promoting himself from vice chair of the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight to chair, replacing now-retired chair Michele Smith (43rd).

The City Council has long abdicated that power and allowed the mayor to pick Council leaders — even though state law and Roberts Rules of Order authorize the council to choose its own.

That’s what happened in May 2019 when Lightfoot won the first test of her legislative muscle by installing her handpicked leadership team led by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) as Finance chair and Pat Dowell (3rd) as Budget chair.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a 24-year veteran and one of the council’s most senior members, was banished from the mayor’s leadership team because he dared oppose Waguespack.

The BGA’s Zarou not only endorsed the promotion for Martin but essentially urged the council to declare its independence from the mayor once and for all.

“Leadership positions are more than symbolic: Committees come with their own budgets and staff, are overseen by the chairs, and chairs traditionally set the agenda and decide which matters will be heard in their committees, as well. Allowing the mayor to appoint committee chairs cedes substantial power from the legislature to the administration,” Zarou wrote.

Lightfoot has made it clear she has no intention of ceding control.

Asked about Martin’s bold move after the council meeting, Lightfoot said: “There’s a process by which we do that, and the process is the mayor makes the final picks. I don’t see any reason to break from that long-standing precedent.”

Now that the mass exodus from the council is pretty much complete, Lightfoot said she plans to move quickly to fill the Smith vacancy and the void created by the resignation of Education Committee Chair Michael Scott Jr. (24th).

In Friday’s statement, Zarou noted the Education Committee “met only eight times in more than three years” under Scott’s leadership, mostly to “confirm mayoral appointments” to boards overseeing Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago. No “major education legislation” was considered, he said.

“The Better Government Association Policy team urges City Council to take this opportunity to act as an independent, co-equal branch of government, both by taking up Ald. Martin’s resolution and by appointing an active and engaged leader as chair of the education committee,” Zarou wrote.

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Chicago is the “only major city in the United States” allowing the mayor to dictate committee chairs — positions that should “oversee and check” the mayor’s actions.

“It means generally that the committees meet when the mayor says they can meet. Their agenda is, in significant part, determined by the mayor. Whether votes are had is largely determined by the mayor. And, in that sense, we don’t have true debate, dialogue and engagement between the peoples’ representatives ... and the chief executive,” said Ferguson, who has launched a nonprofit to reexamine Chicago’s governing structure.

“The resolution by Ald. Martin — whether it is successful or not — plants an important flag for a bigger conversation that the city of Chicago needs to have about its municipal governance structure.”

Martin could not be reached for comment.

It’s not the first time the council has been urged to get a backbone.

Three months ago, Beale argued the council needs to be “turned upside down” — with its own speaker, parliamentarian, attorney and committee chairs it chooses — to end Lightfoot’s “dictatorship.”

Beale let loose one day after Lightfoot used a parliamentary maneuver to preserve her 6 mph ticketing threshold for Chicago speed cameras, the latest in a string of disputed mayoral rulings during council meetings.

The same thing happened last week, when the council authorized the Chicago Fire to build a soccer training facility on Chicago Housing Authority land a day after the Zoning Committee had shot down the Near West Side project. The site, previously earmarked for affordable housing, once included the CHA’s ABLA Homes.

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