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Aldermen Fri Aug 12 2011

Decoupling Waste from Ward Map: Garbage as Politics

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is reportedly steaming ahead with plans to unlink the collection of Chicago's residential garbage (for single-family homes, two-flats, and three-flats) from the time-honored ward-by-ward provision of this critical municipal service, a move that may leave some aldermen equally steaming. The potential $60 million savings in play here from collecting garbage along routes that make the most sense for Streets and San, rather than by political boundaries, should make this a no-brainer. So why opposition? Because, while many think of politics as trashy, in Chicago, trash is politics.

While technically the 50 aldermen are legislators, the sheer size of wards -- each 1/50 of a city population that has hovered around 3 million for decades -- means that an alderman can function more like a mayor of a town of 60,000. In a good-government model of civics, services don't depend upon a voter's politics, but the bad old mindset of corruption in Chicago accepted as given that whether or not your potholes were paved, your garbage timely picked up, or your burned-out streetlights replaced depended on how you or your block voted. The practice was effectively institutionalized by delegating the provision of municipal services to the ward level, although downtown maintained some veto power. In well-oiled machine wards, the ward superintendent -- technically an employee of the executive branch -- worked hand-in-hand with both City Hall and the alderman. In wards with an unruly alderman, the ward superintendent could act as City Hall's enforcer, punishing the alderman, who would then be vulnerable next election for being "bad at delivering services."

You could make some argument that an alderman knows the ward best, that an uncaring, detached, and distant City bureaucracy could never be as effective as a ward representative at knowing where the local problems are and what the priorities should be. There is also some appeal to the idea of ombudsman, although it seems paradoxical in a system of self-government that anyone should need an additional person as a go-between to government. And there is no reason why an ombudsman should need to make what an alderman gets paid.

From a cost-efficiency standpoint, the ward system over time made less and less sense because each successive gerrymandering of the ward maps carved up communities and shredded natural boundaries: main arterial streets, parks, and the like. In an Internet age where satellites and apps give anyone "street view," and where anyone can post or tweet a pothole, in a City with an expensive, fully-functioning 311 system, it's even harder to make the argument for wards as service units.

But the street-level knowledge of problems has never really been the reason for preservation of the ward system of service delivery; the real reason is the street-level political clout that accrues to the filterer of those services in such a system, i.e., the alderman and/or committeeman, oftentimes one and the same person. Such a system also cultivates an ethos of patronage, in the sense that citizens come to see municipal services not as something they are entitled to by virtue of citizenship and paying taxes, but as a dependent variable, with the controlling variable being their relationship and communication with the ward patron.

So to understand Mayor Emanuel's proposal is to understand that it is, in fact, a proposal for reform. Will it centralize delivery of these services in the mayor's office? Sure. But unless the City were to move to a far more decentralized model, with each ward in essence its own sub-city, the executive branch, not the legislative, is where trash pickup responsibility should reside. A move that can bridge nearly 10% of the City's budget shortfall should rise or fall on the benefits to all taxpayers, and shouldn't be opposed for what are essentially political reasons.

 

Mike / August 12, 2011 3:09 PM

None of this matters to the many people in Chicago who live in buildings with more than three units. We all pay for private waste disposal. In my building, we pay about $1,000 a year for trash and recycling pickup by a private company. They do a pretty good job, and there's only one guy. On the city trucks there are three.

Jeff / August 12, 2011 7:31 PM

Right you are on the single-family-home v. multi-unit distinction, and I've tweaked the post to emphasize that. But all residents, whether bungalow owner, condo denizen, or three-flat renter, pay taxes, so this does affect everyone.

John / August 12, 2011 11:32 PM

fwiw the city garbage trucks in my neighborhood have a 2 man crew - if there was only one guy he would have to pull the truck forward and get out to empty a few bins every 10 yards. That said this does sound like the first step in privatizing waste management citywide - hope they can do it without screwing up!

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