Photo by Manuel Martinez, WBEZ / Treatment by Jason McGregor, Crain’s Chicago Business/iStock photo
Virtual public meetings and better systems of accountability have sharply boosted aldermanic attendance rates at City Council meetings since 2019, according to a joint analysis by The Daily Line, WBEZ and Crain’s Chicago Business. The average Chicago alderman showed up to do the work of the City Council about four out of every five times they were required to since the start of the term in May 2019.
WBEZ, Crain’s Chicago Business and The Daily Line analyzed publicly available attendance records for 519 City Council meetings and committee meetings that occurred between May 2019 and December 2021 and found that Chicago aldermen attended an average of about 86% of the meetings required of them.
You can look up your alderman’s meeting attendance rate using our tool below.
Jason McGregor / Crain’s Chicago Business, and iStock photo
As COVID-19 cases have declined, Chicago’s downtown is beginning to transform from a pandemic ghost town into a bustling hub. And as more and more workers around the city face calls to return to the office, Chicago’s civic leaders are asking themselves: Can we really get more work done in person?
For much of the past two years, the City Council has met virtually, with aldermen implementing an historic new police oversight board, renaming DuSable Lake Shore Drive and passing a budget — all from the comfort of their homes, ward offices and even the dentist chair.
Jason McGregor / Crain’s Chicago Business, and iStock photo
Despite pressing issues surrounding education, racial equity and refugees facing Chicago in recent years, the staffed, six-figure City Council committees dedicated to those issues rarely meet, a Crain’s/The Daily Line/WBEZ joint analysis showed.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot reorganized some committees and created two new permanent committees — Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Contracting Equity and Oversight — expanding the number of standing committees to 19, up from 16 under the previous administration.
If Chicago’s 50 City Council members received a grade for how often they showed up to required meetings and hearings at City Hall, the average alderman would get an D, according to a joint analysis by WBEZ and The Daily Line.
The average alderman showed up to just 65 percent of committee and City Council meetings between the start of the current term in 2015 and the end of last year, according to available attendance logs obtained through open records requests. Eight showed up less than half the time.
Next week, voters will decide which Chicago aldermen deserve another four-year term — and the six-figure, taxpayer-funded salary that comes with it.
Want to see how your alderman stacks up? Search your address here and scroll down to see how all 50 stacked up.
Traditionally, that job has been more associated with tree-trimming and garbage pickup than crafting city policy and watchdogging government. But every honorary street sign, zoning amendment, multi-billion dollar bond sale, airport lease agreement and tax hike must be approved by one of the City Council’s 16 committees before advancing to become law.
Still, some aldermen just don’t show up to the meetings where all of that happens.
“Some of my colleagues, they prefer to be show horses as opposed to work horses,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, a freshman who had the council’s best attendance rate at nearly 95 percent.
While many aldermen complained of conflicting meetings schedules, those with the lowest attendance rates argue that trudging over to meetings at City Hall just isn’t the most vital part of the job.
“I don't really have to show up,” said powerful South Side Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, who had the council’s worst attendance rate at 34 percent, according to available records. Austin said she often listens in to what’s happening in the council chambers over the speaker system in her office. “And if my vote is that important, I do show up.”
In fact, it’s largely because of Austin that it’s impossible for voters to get the full picture of how many other aldermen don’t show up for committee meetings. To calculate aldermanic attendance rates, WBEZ and The Daily Line combed through nearly a thousand pages of monthly meeting reports from the start of the current term in June 2015 through December 2018.
All committees filed their attendance data with the City Clerk’s office — except for the Budget Committee, which Austin chairs. After weeks of stonewalling, WBEZ sued the committee in Cook County court to get the documents ahead of the Feb. 26 election. Ultimately, the committee produced only a quarter of the documents that it’s legally required to keep.
Poor attendance common among council veterans
Including Austin, eight aldermen attended less than half of the meetings they were supposed to: Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, George Cardenas, 12th Ward, Howard Brookins, 21st Ward, Danny Solis, 25th Ward, Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward, Pat O’Connor, 40th Ward, and Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward.
Maldonado cited the death of his wife as a reason for many of his absences.
But other aldermen said they view their role the same way old school ward bosses of The Machine days did: They’re the person you call when you want to start a new business, when a squirrel eats through your garbage can, or when the pothole outside your garage dings up your car.
Hairston, who represents parts of the South Shore neighborhood and Jackson Park, said courting development to her ward “creates a whole other job.” When asked about her 49 percent attendance record, she said her work on the massive Obama Presidential Center, the Tiger Woods golf course, and efforts to get a grocery store have kept her “very, very busy in the ward.”
“What I think is most important is to be in the ward doing the work that the people expect you to do,” Hairston said.
For Cardenas, from the McKinley Park neighborhood, the simple numbers don’t tell the whole story. He said looking at attendance is like basing a student’s aptitude on the frequency they show up to class.
“You could have a perfect attendance,” said Cardenas, who had a 41 percent attendance rate. “It doesn't mean you are there, there. I mean mentally there, you know what I mean?”
“What good would it do for [an alderman] to be 100 percent in committee meetings and 100 percent absent from his community?” he said.
In addition to busy schedules in the ward, the average alderman sits on seven committees, which often hold simultaneous meetings at City Hall.
“Obviously, I can’t be in two places at once,” said Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, 1st Ward, echoing a common refrain from aldermen.
Some aldermen blamed their absences on the pedestrian, hyper-local votes that clog the vast majority of the council’s legislative docket. Rogers Park Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward, is a nearly 30-year veteran of the City Council and has only attended about 51 percent of the meetings he was required to, according to the analysis.
Moore is chairman of the Housing Committee, and said he’s present for nearly all of its meetings. But he argues that he’s got better things to do than travel downtown to vote on a street light or stop sign for a colleague on the other side of the city.
“My top priority is serving my constituents. And sitting Downtown in a committee meeting on a bunch of ward-specific matters that have nothing to do with my ward — I don’t think is the best use of my time,” Moore said.
For Ravenswood Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward, who attended less than half the meetings he was required to attend, time is better spent on citywide public policy.
He is now running to become the city’s treasurer.
“I’m proud of my record and I personally don’t know that it makes a whole lot of sense to be voting on every single sidewalk cafe, stop sign, every minor adjustment that we make, and so I’ve been on the record of that,” he said.
Brookins and O’Connor declined to comment on the story. Solis did not respond to requests for comment. All three are committee chairs.
‘This is what we’re here to do’
The City Council has long been derided as a rubber stamp for the mayor’s agenda, a body where vote outcomes are predetermined by behind-the-scenes deals before legislation hits the council floor. Before every monthly City Council meeting, most legislative work is cooked up by the mayor’s office and handed down to committee chairmen to put before members for a vote.
Aldermen who more regularly show up to City Hall said committee meetings are the only time in the legislative process where aldermen can flex their power. They can make line edits, force entire rewrites of legislation, and invite local organizations and business groups to weigh in on new laws.
For aldermen with high attendance, even sitting through the mundane meetings is essential to what they believe it means to represent their ward.
“Most of the grunt work, the meat and potatoes of legislation-making happens in committees, that’s when you get to have more discussion, you get to hear more outside opinion,” said Lopez, the freshman alderman with the council’s highest attendance rate.
*Correction: Due to a typographical error, a previous version of this graphic included incorrect attendance rates for two aldermen. Michael Scott Jr.'s rate is 84 percent. John Arena's attendance rate is 73 percent.
Northwest Side Ald. Ariel Reboyras, 30th Ward, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, attended 82 percent of the meetings he was supposed to over the past term. When constituents call and ask him whether he voted on a specific issue, he said he wants to be able to give them an answer.
“But if nothing else, this is what we’re here to do,” Reboyras said. “And if nothing else, we should attend the meetings. That’s what we get paid for.”
The type of work aldermen do – or can’t do – could be affected by who wins the race to become Chicago’s next mayor. Former White House Chief of Staff and U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, for example, has proposed cutting the City Council’s size by more than two-thirds, which would likely put pressure on aldermen to beef up their legislative roles and leave menial ward-related tasks to city staff.
And several candidates want to ban aldermen from holding outside jobs, following the corruption scandal involving once-powerful Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Ward allegedly illegal efforts to hustle business for his private law practice.
“For me, this is my full time job,” said freshman Ald. Michael Scott Jr., 24th Ward, who had an 88 percent attendance rate. “I’m in the ward every day. I’m not one of those aldermen who don’t come to work, and when I’m called to be here to a committee meeting, I think it’s important to show up.”
But for now, City Council members must juggle the pressures of being a hyper-responsive “alley alderman” for constituents in their wards, and helping shape a city-wide agenda in committee rooms downtown.
One recent weekday, Moreno had just finished up chairing a meeting about economic development, at the same time the Finance Committee on which he also sits was taking big votes about workers compensation and a $1 million legal payout to the family of someone who died in police custody.
And then he got call on his cell phone: Someone in his ward was upset their recycling hadn’t gotten picked up.
“I mean, of course you could make changes. But the system in Chicago has run so long that aldermen are responsible for everything,” Moreno said. “I don’t think Chicagoans would like that.”
Claudia Morell reports on City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @claudiamorell.
- How we calculated ranking: An alderman’s rate is based off of the total number of meetings the alderman attended divided by the total number of meetings the alderman should have attended, based on committee assignments.
- Incomplete budget data: By deadline, the Council’s Budget Committee provided only 19 of the 78 meetings it held between June 2015 through December 2018. The Budget Committee “hand-searched through dozens of boxes looking for the attendance sheets,” Amber Ritter, an attorney for the city, wrote in an email. “They are stored with other records from each meeting, etc., as opposed to being stored in one place.” Austin, the committee chair, told The Daily Line she “can’t believe” the records are missing, and is “checking in on that.”
- We only count meetings were attendance records have been provided: In addition to the missing Budget data, not all offsite meetings have attendance records. Those meetings are excluded from the analysis.
- Committee version lists: Committee assignments are set on the first full City Council meeting of the term, which is usually held at the end of May. Over the course of our analysis, membership lists were amended two additional times. To address the changes, there are three membership lists: (1) the original assignments, (2) committee reshuffle when Sophia King replaced Will Burns in the 4th Ward in 2016, (3) committee reshuffle when Silvana Tabares replaced Mike Zalewski in the 23rd Ward in 2018.
- Joint meetings: Joint committees are when two or more committees meet together as a single body. Sometimes, aldermen are members of both committees. In those cases, an alderman’s attendance is only counted once.
- Attendance could include/exclude drop-ins: Sometimes, aldermen leave a meeting shortly after they’re marked present on attendance sheets. Sometimes, aldermen show up late and are not marked present on attendance sheets. The documents only reflect attendance at the time it was taken.
Morning Briefing: Chief Judge Sues Preckwinkle Over Layoffs, Chicago IG Says City Falling Short on Enforcing Minimum Wage
- Jesse Ruiz, the president of the Chicago Park District Board and a partner at Drinker, Biddle and Reath announced his intention to run for Illinois Attorney General Wednesday and launched a campaign website with a web ad commercial in English and Spanish. He is the second Chicago leadership defection in the AG race, as Civilian Office of Police Accountability Administrator Sharon Fairley announced her AG campaign earlier this month. Her exit leaves a gap at the brand new agency. Its interim Chief Administrator, retired Cook County Circuit Judge Patricia Banks, will likely testify on the department’s 2018 budget on Wednesday, Nov. 1.
The 30-second spot, called “Every Day,” is funded by Pawar’s opponent, Democratic state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, D-Chicago.
The ad highlights data from an analysis by WBEZ and The Daily Line, which found the 47th Ward alderman has one of the lowest attendance rates in the City Council. Pawar went to less than half of the committee meetings he was required to. That was below the average 65 percent attendance rate for all 50 aldermen.
Read More: How Often Did Your Alderman Show Up To Work At City Hall?
“Ameya Pawar is a typical politician,” the voice-over in the video begins. “Pawar’s missed more than half his meetings as alderman.”
It goes on to ding Pawar for voting in favor of the city’s record property tax hike in 2015. The ominous soundtrack flips to jubilant music when Conyears-Ervin is introduced as she appears to walk the city talking with voters.
A person familiar with the Conyears-Ervin campaign said they placed a $190,000 ad buy for the commercial to run on all local TV stations this week, and expects to spend more next week before the April 2 runoff election.
Pawar’s campaign shot back in an emailed statement, saying that he has a 95 percent attendance rate at full City Council meetings. But that only includes monthly meetings, and not the vast majority of subject-specific committee hearings where aldermen can make changes to legislation and hear testimony.
The alderman also called Conyears-Ervin “a machine backed Springfield politician” who voted in favor of a state income tax hike, while Pawar highlighted his record on “social justice and government reform.”
Pawar and Conyears-Ervin will go head to head in next month’s runoff election because neither of them garnered a majority in the first round of voting on Feb. 26. The city treasurer oversees the city’s bank accounts and its investment portfolio.
Conyears-Ervin is the wife of 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin. Pawar is nearing the end of his second term on the City Council. Though there are no official term limits for Chicago aldermen, Pawar has long said he would leave after two terms. In 2018, he abandoned a longshot run for governor before the March Democratic primary.
Recent polling shows both candidates in a dead-heat ahead of the April 2 election.
(Valencia joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago aldermen, and dozens of city youth and veterans for the inaugural launch at the Clerk’s office on the first floor of City Hall, the main location where Chicagoans will be able to register for the ID. Photo: Claudia Morell, The Daily Line)
After addressing the regular agenda, the committee is scheduled to receive its quarterly status update on the city’s progress toward its 2017 affordable housing goals. For 2017, the city has committed to spend $244 million toward 7,600 units of affordable housing. At the close of September, according to the report, Chicago is $42 million over budget and 800 units short.
Art in Motion, operated by Distinctive Schools, was selected to provide more arts education to high schoolers on the South Side, “providing families with a performing arts school that leverages personalized learning curriculum and rigorous instruction.”
“To ensure students receive the high quality education they deserve, CPS is recommending closure of a poor performing charter, as well as opening a high quality school to meet demand for a performing arts education in the Greater Grand Crossing area,” said CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. “Our priority is ensuring that schools deliver a high quality education and meet a need in the community, and we are confident these decisions are in the best interest of our students.”
The clout-heavy team includes Pastor John F. Hannah With New Life Covenant Church, a one-time member of the city’s Human Relations Board, the Lynn Group, a nonprofit operated by rapper Common, and Whole Foods. Hannah was a member of the city’s 2012 school-closing commission and his church. Since then, his church has purchased several city-owned lots, including the site where the new charter school will be built.
[Art in Motion's Full Application]
Art in Motion’s application offered two potential sites on opposite ends of Grand Crossing Park for the new middle and high school, grade seven through 12.
One is 7600 S. Greenwood Ave., formerly city-owned land the church purchased in 2013 to build a 100,000-square foot mega church with a 4,000‐seat performing arts center, and gallery space. The other option is sharing space at Hirsch Metropolitan High School.
Pending approval by the Board of Education on Monday, the school would open during the 2018-19 academic year with full capacity by 2022-23.
CPS issued a request for proposals for new school operators in December of 2016. [Details of the RFP]. Though nine proposals had been submitted, seven withdrew their application before Thursday’s decision. The completed application from Chicago Classical Academy was denied.
“Express service to and from O'Hare will give Chicagoans and visitors to our great city more options, faster travel times, and build on Chicago’s competitive advantage as a global hub of tourism, transportation and trade," said Mayor Emanuel in a release.
A 2006 report CTA commissioned on the feasibility of express train service to O’Hare determined Express Service would be “substantially more capital intensive than implementing the Direct Service.” It estimated the costs could surpass $1.5 billion.
The financing structure would be similar to how the city funds operations at its airports. Both O’Hare and Midway International Airport are financed through segregated enterprise accounts that are funded through fees and lease payments.
The O’Hare Express System (OES) Project would be “funded solely by project-specific revenues (like fares or advertising) and financed entirely by the concessionaire,” the press release explains.
Emanuel put the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT) in charge of finding a designer, contractor, and concessionaire to oversee the project. The public-private partnership (PPP) Emanuel created early in his first term to leverage private dollars for city construction was recently named as the lead collaborator on the new police and fire training academy planned for West Garfield Park. The City Council approved the necessary zoning changes and land purchase for the public safety academy earlier this month.
CIT issued a Request for Proposals (RFQ) Wednesday. A pre-submittal information session is scheduled for Dec. 20 at the Chicago Cultural Center in Millennium Park. RFQ responses are due Jan. 24, 2018.
[Request for Qualifications To Design, Build,
Finance, Operate & Maintain O’Hare Express System]
In 2016, Chicago’s Department of Aviation began soliciting engineering firms to “analyze and develop conceptual designs as well as an overall timeline for the project.” At the time, it had received three proposals, but did not identify the firms. Previous project plans for an express train to O’Hare were unrealistic, the solicitation said, because they were reliant on existing, overly burdened rail-lines. CDA sought creative solutions to address those obstacles.
On a given day, some 20,000 commuters travel between O’Hare and downtown Chicago, according to city estimates. That number is expected to reach 35,000 by 2045.
The CTA’s Blue Line is the quickest transit option to the airport, a ride that can take between 45 minutes to an hour depending on train delays. And adding an express train on the Blue Line is an unlikely alternative. Chicago’s public transit system is one of the oldest in the country. Its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), estimates the CTA will need about $20 billion just to cover maintenance.
Lack of a state capital budget and declining federal aid, coupled with decreased ridership, has put a financial strain on the CTA. This is why Emanuel had aldermen approve a modest increase on Uber and Lyft rides over the next two years. The additional $16 million generated from the hike will be handed over to the CTA, and independent agency with its own budget and voting board, in perpetuity.
CIT has worked with the CTA. In 2015 it partnered with T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon to bring 4G mobile data service to the city’s subways.
In 2012, with President Bill Clinton by his side, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the idea of creating a separate agency to finance costly “transformational infrastructure investments” through advantaged financing. The press release from that event explains the structure: “each project to customize a financing structure using taxable or tax-exempt debt, equity investments and other forms of support.”
Though the City Council approved the authorizing ordinance a month later, and a slew of board members throughout Emanuel’s two terms, most projects stalled.
CIT’s inaugural project, which Emanuel detailed at that press conference with President Clinton, took years to initiate. Retrofit Chicago, a plan to convert approximately 85% of the City’s lighting fixtures to LEDs, reduced its scope and is behind schedule.
By a vote of 47-3, the Chicago City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $8.58 billion budget plan for next year.