Taxpayers pay millions for Chicago City Council committees, but some rarely meet
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.
But as more dollars are pumped in and staff are hired, several committees aren’t meeting regularly, raising questions about wasted expenditures and the effectiveness of the City Council as a check on the mayor’s administration.
Each committee is given a budget for staff and services ranging from as low as $117,000 for the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights to as much as $1.15 million for the powerful Finance Committee in this year’s budget. Together, City Council committees are slated to cost taxpayers $5.5 million in 2022, an increase from the two previous budgets.
While the average committee met 24 times between May 2019 and December 2021 during the 37 months of the joint analysis, a quarter of them met 10 times or fewer. One only met twice, despite having an annual budget exceeding $100,000.
Nonetheless, committees keep expanding under Lightfoot. Just last month, she created a special temporary committee tasked with vetting plans for Chicago’s future casino, raising concerns from aldermen about who gets to be a member and why another committee should be formed when several existing ones rarely meet.
Ineffectual committees that rarely meet may be wasting — or even misusing — taxpayer dollars, said Joe Ferguson, the city’s former inspector general. And, they keep the council dependent on the mayor’s office for information and analysis.
In an October 2021 audit, Ferguson found that committee staff were often hired without job descriptions and were sometimes redeployed to work in aldermen’s wards. The council has never analyzed how many employees each committee needs, given each body’s workload.
When a committee doesn’t meet to do its work, “it means that no subject matter expertise is being amassed in that area, which means the council as a whole is suffering,” Ferguson said.
“It just renders the whole council poorer and that much more dependent on the kindness of strangers — the strangers here being the people in the mayor’s office,” he added.
New York’s City Council, by contrast, has both legislative and investigative authority to “probe and examine the efficacy of programs” run by the mayor, Ferguson pointed out. Committees there meet monthly and can commission their own reports.
Why does Chicago operate this way? Ferguson argued committees are a remnant of the city’s patronage days, when mayors handed out committee gavels as rewards for loyalty.
With only a fixed sum from the city budget to pay for staff and other costs such as ward rent, aldermen have limited ways to add staff. They can take money from their nonpersonnel city budget, dip into their political funds or be made chair of a committee.
“A lot of the reason that many members of the council want to be a committee chair is not to drive subject matter and policy in a particular area. It’s so that they have access to more resources,” Ferguson said.
Here’s a look at the committees that rarely meet.
The council’s 17-member Committee on Education and Child Development is chaired by Ald. Michael Scott, Jr. (24) and is tasked with considering measures that affect Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Board of Education and childhood development. Its budget has averaged around $175,000 during each of the past three years.
But despite several pressing education issues, including repeated clashes between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union over safety concerns amid the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on working parents and young children and major changes to the structure of the Chicago Board of Education, the committee has met only seven times since mid-2019. That was mostly to consider routine appointments.
Aldermen have introduced plenty of relevant legislation for the committee to consider, including resolutions calling for hearings on CPS’ COVID safety plans, staff shortages and class sizes; support for student loan and debt relief assistance from Washington; and a resolution supporting equal pay for City Colleges adjunct faculty. All are lingering in the committee without hearing dates scheduled.
As the education committee chair, Scott said he has wanted to head off the potential public “browbeating” of new CPS CEO Pedro Martinez while Martinez is trying to get a handle on COVID. Scott said he prefers not to have “cantankerous” discussions in public.
“What I don’t want to do is call a meeting … that gets my colleagues aroused because they didn’t get the answers that they want, because that puts me in a bind,” Scott said. He prefers small briefings to public committee meetings, in part because he says he doesn’t “have dominion as the chair” to make CPS officials show up.
Caption: Chicago Ald. Michael Scott, Jr. attends a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022. He is chair of the council’s education committee, which has only met seven times since mid-2019. [Manuel Martinez / WBEZ]
CPS officials regularly brief aldermen privately, Scott said, and he noted CPS has its own public board meetings that residents and aldermen can attend. Those board meetings, however, often fall on the same days that the City Council meets.
Scott did hold a hearing on the reopening of Chicago Public Schools on Jan. 11, 2021, the same day students and teachers came back to the classroom for the first time since the pandemic took hold of the city. Aldermen grilled CPS officials and public health experts for more than seven hours that day on topics of COVID data, air filtration in schools and personal protective equipment.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49) filed a resolution at the start of this school year calling for a hearing on “COVID-19 safety plans, protocols and remote learning options.” Her proposal has not yet been called. Since she filed it, the January omicron surge led to a protracted fight between the union and district leadership and several days of canceled classes.
While Hadden acknowledged the pandemic has made attendance from CPS officials a challenge, “we’re doing a disservice to not have committee meetings and not call resolutions,” Hadden said, arguing families were not getting answers from school officials.
“I think that if we as a City Council determine that we should have a standing committee on this issue, then we should have regular meetings,” Hadden said.
Scott gave no guarantee meetings would pick up again, but he said “we are working toward making sure that there is a regular cadence about things that concern parents, that concern aldermen and concern communities.”
Immigrant and refugee rights
Lightfoot created the 13-member City Council Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights as part of her 2021 budget plan. Chaired by Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30), it’s responsible for considering matters related to “the security and stability” of first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees living in Chicago.
But the committee met only twice in 2021 and canceled four other scheduled meetings. Still, Lightfoot’s administration boosted its budget from $111,500 last year to $117,000 in 2022.
Pending matters in the committee include hearings on federal pathways to citizenship and the treatment of Haitian migrants, as well as support for noncitizens’ ability to vote in local elections.
During the two meetings the committee did hold, members approved symbolic resolutions calling for President Joe Biden to “immediately enact immigration reform” and another “condemning gender-based violence in Afghanistan.”
During the latter meeting, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 33rd Ward, grilled the director of Chicago’s Office of New Americans about what services the city planned to provide for Afghan refugees, demanding “very clear guidance” on what the city would do to help. Reboyras has yet to schedule a subsequent committee meeting.
“I’d like to meet more often if I can, to justify my position and City Council’s position, but … we’re hoping that we can get it rolling once again,” Reboyras said. “Just waiting for that to happen.”
In the summer of 2020, after Chicago and other cities were rocked by a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd, and after neighboring Evanston began to dole out reparations to Black residents, aldermen approved the creation of a City Council Subcommittee on Reparations. Housed under the Committee on Health and Human Relations, the subcommittee has since met only once. The part of the health committee’s budget dedicated to help pay for the subcommittee’s work has not increased.
Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16), who chairs the subcommittee, has encountered “multiple barriers” in trying to schedule meetings for her reparations subcommittee, she said. Among them, Coleman said, is that scheduling her committee doesn’t appear to be a priority of the mayor’s office.
Ald. Stephanie Coleman, 16th Ward, speaks at Ombudsman Chicago South High School on Aug. 31, 2021. She said scheduling meetings for the City Council’s subcommittee on reparations, of which she is chair, has been difficult. [Manuel Martinez / WBEZ]
“We’re looking for this to be a priority just like all of the other [committees], especially with the new committee on casino,” Coleman said.
“We should not be following anyone, we should be leading this,” Coleman said. “I admire what Evanston has done, but Chicago, we’re the greatest city ever. Others should be following us.”
It’s part of a problematic trend Ferguson has heard from aldermen that the final call whether, when and how to hold many meetings is ultimately up to the mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, or IGA.
Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ethics and government oversight
Despite ethics scandals that have roiled the City Council, including the indictments of four former and current aldermen, the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight has met just nine times since the start of the current mayoral term. Chaired by Ald. Michele Smith (43), its annual budget for 2022 is just over $191,000.
Like Scott, Smith said some issues are better left to briefings behind the scenes.
Duties of committee chairs “extend beyond having committee meetings,” she said, adding it is within her jurisdiction to receive reports from the city’s inspector general and to hold hearings or briefings on the reports.
“Not all of them are worth having a committee hearing about,” she said. “But we often have briefings for all of them and you know, [the reports are] publicly available.”
“But, you know, we’re all reading a lot,” Smith said.
Alex Nitkin of The Daily Line contributed.
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