If you follow the Chicago City Council long enough, you’ll discover a dirty little secret about how city’s legislative body operates.
If given a choice, many Chicago alderman would rather fight to keep their political power than do their jobs.
But that’s not the real secret. The real secret is that for most alderman, political power means only caring about what happens in their own ward and the rest of the city be dammed. For them, real power lies in being allowed to act with impunity in their own political boundaries, which means making sure that no one sees what’s going on in their private kingdoms becomes the highest priority.
How else do you explain yet another example of the Council willingly giving up one of its key legislative functions—oversight over actions of the executive branch of government, otherwise known as the Mayor’s office?
Of course, I’m referring to reports that Helen Shiller—former alderman of the 46th Ward—is the frontrunner for becoming the new, $107,000-a-year City Council Financial Analyst.
Shiller has been the frontrunner almost since Mayor Emanuel, Ald. Pat Dowell, Ald. Ameya Pawar and Ald. Michele Smith announced a deal to create the City Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA) as part of the 2014 Budget proposal.
Which makes a certain kind of perverted sense. After all, Shiller was once known as a contrarian alderman and political radical, always ready to fight the Daley administration to remain independent.
Yet the fact that Shiller is the frontrunner for such a supposedly important example of “major reform” in how city finances are run is, well, everything you need to know about how the City Council really operates.
The City Council Office of Financial Analysis is supposed to help alderman—almost all of whom are politicians and not numbers crunchers—understand the complex, fast-moving deals the city strikes with Wall Street firms, hedge funds and other financial players.
And the need is there. For proof, all you have to do is look at the way the city was hosed on the notorious parking meter deal. By some estimates, the city lost billions in the original deal, in part because outside of a handful of folks in the mayor’s office, no one understood the deal before it was passed into law.
Or take a look at reports that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration could be stuck with a nearly $200 million tab as a result of betting heavily on risky interest-rate “swaps” under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Sun-Times reports the deals required the city to maintain a certain credit rating, but the rating has fallen since the Daley administration made them, putting the city at risk.
Or how about the series of “toxic swaps” currently draining millions of dollars from the Chicago Public School budget, adding fuel to the fire for the CPS continuing budget crisis and the closing of neighborhood schools?
Does Shiller—or any of the other “excellent candidates” Ald. Dowell says are being considered—have an expertise in how interest rate swaps work? Or does she simply have an expertise in how the City Council really works?
The truth is, Council advocates for Shiller or someone similar are arguing that in order to truly do the job of financial analyst correctly, a candidate must really need to know how the council works, not how finance works.
It’s right there, in the Sun-Times report. “[Shiller is] not a person that we have to get ready. Other candidates work and work and work in a vacuum of no knowledge,” Ald. Carrie Austin said. “No one could be more expert than Helen because she knows our system. She has worked this system 20-some odd years.”
Yet the City of Chicago’s actual job posting for the position says absolutely nothing about knowing how the Chicago City Council works. Instead, it says qualified candidates must understand issues such as how public-private partnerships operate, analysis of rating agency actions, analyzing the city’s annual audit and recommending “cost-saving reforms and efficiencies.”
It also suggests strongly that applicants have a Master’s degree in Finance, Economics or Business. Not be chummy with Budget Committee chair Austin, Housing Committee chair Ray Suarez or Finance Committee chair Ed Burke, all of whom are backing Shiller.
A real finance expert could help uncover all kinds of ways alderman are either benefitting in their own wards from financial deals the city makes, or expose how the Council has long been a mere rubber stamp for many of the mayor's financial dealings.
But in Chicago’s City Council, real expertise doesn’t matter. Unless it’s expertise in helping aldermen shirk their real responsibilities and go on conducting business as usual.