How do all those committees come about?
“There has to be some changes made,” said outgoing 50th ward Alderman Bernard Stone.
It was a remarkable declaration from Chicago’s longest serving alderman.
But change is coming soon to Chicago’s City Council, backed by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel who says there is no reason to have 19 City Council committees at a cost of nearly $5 million a year.
Over the years, aldermen like Stone have awarded friends and supporters with jobs on Council Committees.
And those employees rewarded him with campaign contributions.
50th Ward resident Joseph Chakchay, according to city records, works for the Buildings Committee. Chakchay and his family have given $4,075 to Stone since 2000.
“I never solicit any member of my committee to contribute,” Stone said. “But if they voluntarily contribute, I never refused it.”
Alderman Stone’s not the only one who hasn’t refused employee contributions. 40th Ward Alderman Pat O’Connor, chairman of the Traffic Control Committee has four city employees who have contributed between $3,000 and $9,000 since 1999. Art Davis, O’Connor’s aide, has, according to state campaign disclosure records, given over $9,000 to the alderman since 1999. In the last four years, clerk Mary Ellen Lee has donated $3,675. O’Connor says those contributions are as American as apple pie.
“If I work for someone I believe in and I want to contribute towards that success of that individual and what they do, I think it’s American,” O’Connor said.
Not all aldermen think it is proper however.
“It’s a conflict, I think, to have somebody give you money and in turn you supervise them,” said 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas. “I just think it sends the wrong message.” 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston concurred.
The old maxim was to contribute 2% of your salary back to the ward that employed you, according to former alderman and current UIC Professor Dick Simpson.
“There’s no firm rule now,” Simpson said about the donations. “They contribute to the good health of the alderman still being powerful.”
33rd Ward Alderman Dick Mell heads the Rules and Ethics Committee.
A member of his staff, Terry Toner, has given $1,900 to Mell’s ward in the past few years. Those are normal contribution numbers enough, but what is troubling is Toner’s address – in Oak Park, according to the Illinois Board of Elections. Chicago residency, unlike the 2% rule, continues to hold firm as a requirement of city employment.
The 33rd Ward treasurer Mary Hahne said she is sure Toner lives within city limits and not in the suburbs. Toner, on recent sick leave, did not return our calls. Hahne also works for Mell’s Legislative Reference Bureau. When asked what she does for the committee, she said by phone, to make sure the alderman’s appointments are set and answering the phone. Since 2000, she’s donated around $6,800 to the 33rd Ward. Alderman Mell was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Today there are 19 committees but questions remain about the number and the effectiveness. Last Tuesday, both the Aviation Committee meeting and the Budget and Government Operations meeting lasted less than five minutes each.
“[Short meetings] happen from time to time but every once in a while, periodically, there are some big deals going on,” 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett said. An issue now being looked at is a reassessment of the number of the committees, though not necessarily a look at who gets hired.
Still it’s a start say some aldermen. Even Berny Stone agrees the council doesn’t need 19 committees.
“Hell no,” Stone said.