Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a forum Wednesday to discuss the city’s budget for 2014. There was only one problem: the budget wasn’t on the agenda.
In years past, the process of developing the city’s budget followed a very clear pattern. You could always tell it was budget season in Chicago when the Mayor’s office announced that year’s open hearings with the public, usually one on each side of town: North, South and West.
As Ben Jarvosky points out, these budget hearings under Mayor Richard Daley always had a bit of kabuki theatre to them:
Mayor Daley schlepped his chieftains to some public center on the south, west, or northwest side and made them sit alongside him at a long table, while the little people of Chicago stepped to the microphone to say what was on their minds.
As the hearings wore on well past their third hour, I almost felt sorry for the honchos, straining to stifle yawns and look interested in the face of yet another pothole complaint.
Under Mayor Daley, budget hearings with the public also served another important purpose: they gave people who came to the meetings the chance to yell at the mayor if they so chose.
Carol Smith, an activist for the mentally ill, blasted the mayor for closing mental health centers.
"Why should people who have mental health problems suffer because the administration screwed up?" she asked Daley. "I want an answer right now."
Daley sat stone-faced for several seconds as many in the audience yelled for him to reply.
Under current mayor Rahm Emanuel, however? Not so much.
Wednesday’s forum was billed as a “community roundtable” and was held with invited guests only, mostly small business owners who had a story to tell about interacting with the city bureaucracy. Several nice people, including an restaurant owner and an auto shop operator, alternated between praise for the city’s efforts in helping small business and mild suggestions for ways some processes could be improved.
Throughout, Mayor Emanuel made a few jokes and looked simultaneously interested and distracted at the same time.
After about an hour or so of discussion, the mayor had had enough, and it was time for questions. The first one came from a City Hall reporter and it was—surprise!—about the budget.
The mayor seized the opportunity to get his message out: No increase in property, sales or gas taxes in 2014. Another couple of questions and it was over, with the mayor pointing out a few things for his staff to follow up on before heading out the door.
Any other information about the budget—such as what was being considered, how the decision process is being conducted, what financial issues the city is facing—well, quite frankly, it didn't seem to be the time to talk about those things.
Which seems to be the case for Mayor Emanuel with pretty much any questions about how the city is being governed.
If the topic isn’t on the agenda, it’s simply not going to be discussed.