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Aldermen Thu May 26 2011

Efficiency: Government More Like China

On Monday, the Tribune reported on Mayor Emanuel's first weekend in office, spent working with the University of Chicago on a package of zoning and permitting issues. The University is in a constant state of reshaping Hyde Park according to its growth and development plans, and the City wants to ensure that those plans jive with the the City's and resident's hopes and plans for the area.

The Tribune's story focuses on Emanuel's roll-up-your-sleeves approach to making government "smarter," a theme that was integral to the Mayor's marketing package during the election season. Specifically:

The first actions of any new executive are heavy with symbolism...So what did Mayor Rahm Emanuel do during his first weekend in office? He went to City Hall on Saturday morning in jeans and a dress shirt and met with top officials from the University of Chicago to hammer out an agreement on, of all things, zoning and construction permits.

It was a nice little story about a new Mayor dedicated to overhauling government. What jumped out at me though was that in a story about major development plans in Hyde Park, Hyde Park's alderman, Will Burns, was not mentioned.

Apparently, Burns noticed this too, because within a few hours, he posted this on Twitter (read from the bottom up):


The traditional practice of "aldermanic prerogative" gives Aldermen the final say on development issues in their communities. Emanuel's first weekend in office seems to go directly against this tradition--which isn't necessarily bad or good. What's interesting though is that here we have a high-level agreement between two of the most powerful men in the city--U of C President Dr. Robert Zimmer and the Mayor--on major development issues in a big and diverse community.

It's telling that what motivated Emanuel to take such action to streamline the process was a comment by Zimmer that his university was able to build something in China in 6 months, but that simpler permits in Chicago had taken almost two years.

Yes, things are easier to permit in China, because China is a totalitarian one-party state. For those projects the state likes, permitting shouldn't be a hassle. If something doesn't jive with the Communist Party's vision, though, I wonder if those wait times would increase. They are able to "streamline" things precisely because there is none of the hassle of democracy. Top-down decision making is not merely an option, it is all there is.

A community like Hyde Park/Kenwood/Oakland should be particularly sensitive to top-down decision making, given the history of the University's less-than-ideal relationship with its neighbors.

So Chicagoans, the Tribune finds no problem with setting China as a symbol of good government. Their evidence: those people who can get Mayor Emanuel to come in to the office on a weekend to discuss their permits won't have to wait in line for permits. In the post-Daley era, we can count on a more China-esque planning process. Cutting red tape is critical. Cutting out the public is not a necessary part of that.

One wonders: do you think those people and institutions that can get the Mayor in for a personal weekend meeting end up cutting in front of some people in those zoning and permitting lines? My sense is your garage expansion probably won't merit a weekend visit. But if you want to remake an neighborhoods, the time to inform and solicit meaningful participation from the public shouldn't add too much to your time.

The red tape for zoning and permitting is outrageous, particularly for things like renovations or moderate up-zoning. China is not the solution, though, and elected officials should not be looking to China as an example. Their economic success rests on the monopoly of power of the un-democratic statist institutions.

The new Mayor's popularity and big electoral victory gives him the room to treat his mayoralty as purely his own, with no sacred cows, and that is an unquestionably good thing; after twenty plus years of one man in office, we need a wholly fresh approach. The Mayor's comprehensive approach to major changes in Hyde Park is definitely good; piecemeal changes are rarely conducive to reform. Public participation however has to be considered productive, not a box to check or a hassle. We have to believe that public input adds value, even if it slows things down.


Casey / June 1, 2011 2:58 PM

interesting that the U of C is being given special treatment. They have no concern for the community when they steer poor patients to the county hospital.

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