City Council urged to postpone declaration of independence

The Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters say no changes in rules or committees should be approved until a new Council is seated in a couple of months.

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The Chicago City Council, at its Monday, May 16, 2022 meeting, during which it passed a new ward map.

The Chicago City Council at its May 16, 2022, meeting, during which it passed a new ward map.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Two of Chicago’s leading champions for open and ethical government on Tuesday raised serious questions about the plan hatched by three of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s closest allies to increase the number of City Council committees from 19 to 28 and change the rules to declare the Council’s independence from the new mayor.

The Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters have long urged the City Council to shed its rubber-stamp reputation and establish its own rules, committee lineups and chairs, taking back the power they have ceded to the mayor.

But the watchdog groups don’t like the way Lightfoot’s allies are now going about it — particularly the plan to ram their proposed changes through the current Council, instead of waiting until a new Council is seated in about two months. The committee expansion is intended to appease a majority and ensure that there are at least the 26 votes needed for it to pass.

In a joint statement, the BGA and the League of Women Voters said Chicago taxpayers already spend more than $5 million a year to bankroll Council staffing, and nearly all of that is spent on committees “some of which have rarely met during the past four years.”

Staff hiring and responsibilities are “left to the discretion” of committee chairs, creating “resource disparities” between members that fuel an “ongoing perception of leadership as a ‘perk’ rather than an administrative responsibility,” the statement said.

“Adding more committees without reforming Council’s staffing structure is a recipe for corruption and waste,” according to the statement.

The BGA and the League of Women Voters also questioned the proposal to reduce the maximum size of most committees from 20 members to 13. A minimum quorum would allow legislation to be passed out of committee with as few as four votes.

“Both our organizations have publicly expressed their support for a more independent City Council, including the Council’s exercise of its existing authority to name its own leadership and committee structure. However, with elections ongoing and some runoffs still undecided, now is not the time for incumbent alderpersons to establish the rules by which their soon-to-be colleagues will be bound. The newly elected representatives deserve their seat at the table,” the joint statement said.

No changes should be approved until a new Council is seated and a “substantive and thoughtful discussion” of the lineup and proposed rules changes is held, first in the rules committee, then during a final floor vote, the BGA and the League of Women Voters said.

“Allowing newly elected members to participate fully and ensuring that all new proposals have a substantive public discussion prior to any final vote will help ensure that a more independent City Council is also one committed to reform and deserving of the public trust,” the statement said.

Twenty-eighth Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Contracting, Oversight and Equity, is one of three Lightfoot allies behind the proposed committee expansion and rules changes. The other architects are finance committee chairman and 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack and rules committee chair and 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris. All three supported Lightfoot’s failed mayoral campaign and stand to lose their committee chairmanships under mayoral candidates Paul Vallas or Brandon Johnson.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black caucus, is among those backing a plan to reorganize the current Council before a new one takes over in May.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Waguespack had promised to call a special Council meeting this week to ratify the rules changes and committee expansion. He has yet to do so, apparently because details of the plan are still being hammered out.

On Tuesday, Ervin was asked if Lightfoot allies would wait until the new Council is seated, as the BGA and the League of Women Voters have requested.

He said that the rules, the committee structure and the lineup of committee chairs would be “ratified by the new Council” even if the changes are approved before the inauguration in mid-May.

“The Council is empowered to move as it chooses,” said Ervin, the Black caucus chairman who has joined his wife, City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, in endorsing Johnson over Vallas in the April 4 runoff.

A lot of the changes are “in line with” what the BGA and the League of Women Voters have advocated, Ervin said.

When asked how he justifies adding nine committees when some of the 19 existing committees seldom meet, he responded:

“It’s about independence, right? If it’s about independence, then the committees will be free to be independent and meet as they need to and as they wish. You can’t judge the future on the past, because we are moving in a new direction.”

Harris and Waguespack could not be reached for comment.

Asked whether he, Harris and Waguespack still intend to call a special Council meeting to ratify the changes, Ervin responded that closed-door deliberations continue and that it’s up to Harris to call for the special meeting.

“The Council needs to be a deliberative body. We are definitely poised to move forward,” Ervin said. “I do believe that the will of the body exists to move forward in a more definitive fashion.”

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