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City Council Sun Dec 12 2010

Should the City Council be Reduced in Size?

Consider this a bit of an open blog -- open to many different ranges of opinion on this. I can understand the more fiscal angle to this, as many believe that aldermen get a lot of money in terms of salary, especially if this elected office is considered a part-time job. Also, they get money to hire staff in addition to an allowance to run their offices. Consider this in context with other major cities in this nation, courtesy of the Better Government Association (BGA):

According to the US Census Bureau, Chicago's population reached 2.8 million in 2009. The City is broken down into 50 districts, or wards, each with its own alderman to represent it in City Council. That gives each alderman roughly 57,000 constituents to represent.

In contrast, New York City has 51 City Council members, and each of those represent over 164,000 constituents. Los Angeles City Council members are only 15 in number, representing over 250,000 constituents each.

Below the remainder of this quote is a chart showing how many constituents city council members in other cities size up. Only Philadelphia comes close with 17 members of the city council representing 91,017 constituents. Of course it should be noted that 10 are elected by district and the other 7 are elected by the city at-large.

BGA further discusses potential savings in cutting the Chicago City Council in half:

If Chicago reduced the city council's size in half, from 50 to 25, there would be savings for the city. The city would save $2.7 million in alderman salaries on top of another $4.4 million that would be saved by eliminating the salaries of the three staffers per alderman.

Nonetheless, a reduction in the number of wards would not necessarily lead to the elimination of all ward staff because each ward office would have to double the number of constituents it serves.

But there can certainly be some reduction in duplicative roles when Aldermen staffs are combined.


Currently, a ward superintendent who receives an average of $90,000 a year runs each ward.  They manage garbage collection, snow removal, and the blue cart recycling program within their wards, and only within their wards. Even if it would make more sense for a garbage truck to continue its pick up down, say, a one way street, ward boundaries -- not common sense or efficiency -- dictate the route.

That last paragraph makes sense to me. Should ward boundaries determine whether or not a garbage pick up crew should continue their route? Could one make a case for more efficient garbage pick-up?

Also Greg Hinz at Crain's took up this issue speaking with attorney Rafael Vargas, aldermanic candidate in the 43rd Ward, who argues in favor of cutting Chicago's city council:

Just because Chicago has had 50 council members "for as long as any of us can remember" is no reason to keep that system, he added. "With a $700-million (budget) deficit, we no longer can afford not to engage in honest dialogue about restructuring."

In an e-mail, Mr. Vargas, a civil rights attorney in his day job, didn't answer the question about whether the number should be cut and, if so, by how much. He agreed that reducing the number could make it more difficult for average folks to reach aldermen who now represent only about 58,000 constituents.


Either way, "50 is kind of an arbitrary number," Mr. Vargas said. "No one has been able to give me an answer as to 'why 50?' "

There are a couple of comments in that piece that are worth noting:

In that same vein, Cook County has 17 commissioners who run a county of 950 sq. miles & about 5 million people.

Los Angeles County has five commissioners for over 4,000 sq. miles & 10 million people!


Combine Chicago and Cook County into one government


Any request for city services requires two calls -- one to 311, and again to the alderman; and that is still no guarantee things will get done. I can't get a phantom bus stop removed 3 years after the Brown Line was reconstructed. They installed a weekend stop for shuttle busses at Kedzie and Wilson -- three years after the project is done, signs still say "Bus Stop - No Parking." We could eliminate half the alderman if we made them function as a legislative body instead of micromanagers of city services.


Think outside the box!! Illinois has 102 counties because when they were created in the 19th century the goal was: every citizen should be able to travel from the county seat to their home in just one day -- by horse back!!

It's not just Chicago that has too many government officials!! Do we need Townships? Who has ever looked at this issue?

Every major corporation has consolidated or merged since technology has made that feasilble. But, none of our over 3,000 governmental bodies in Illinois -- the most in the United States!!. WHY NOT??

There are some good points made by the BGA, and by Vargas in addition to those commenters. I don't necessarily have a problem with the fact that city has such a high number of Alderman with a low number of constituents. I could look at it in terms of being more responsive to citizen concerns in a particular area.

Of course that's not to say all of these Alderman are responsible to those constituents who are concerned about what's going on in their communities. We should address the salaries Aldermen makes in light of the current economy. We should also address any concerns as far as micromanaging city services in a particular ward.

What do you think of this issue?
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Dennis Fritz / December 14, 2010 8:48 AM

"With a $700-million (budget) deficit, we no longer can afford not to engage in honest dialogue about restructuring."

This is the kind of logic we need to resist. Strong arguments for reducing the size of the city council may exist, but this isn't one of them. Cutting the number of aldermen is unlikely to make much a difference in the budget hole one way or the other.

This issue provides many oportunties for manipulating the generic, mindless, hate-the -government attitude prevelant among a large section of the public; it also plays into the hands of those who think everything, including government, needs to operate like a business. That isn't so.

Again, there may be some good arguments for cutting down membership in the city council. But so far, I've heard many more bad ones than good ones.

WAJ / December 14, 2010 10:22 AM

How about rephrasing the question as "What supports keeping the city council the at its current size?"

I can imagine 100 years ago that coordination of garbage collection was somewhat difficult and required a subset of managers. In 2010, technology (collection, communication, transportation, and sanitation) has reduced ward-level managerial requirements, rendering the current system top heavy.

My personal interaction with my aldermen over the last decade and a half has revolved around parking stickers and potholes. Both serve as the local gov't equivalent of a vending machine.

Dennis Fritz / December 14, 2010 11:17 AM

That would be a much better way of approaching it.

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