Why the Aldermen Want to Reclaim Power

Ward Room has long been told that Chicago has a “strong council/weak mayor” system in which most of the power is vested in the aldermen.

The mayor can check them with his veto, but he’s helpless to override a determined City Council. This all laid out in an ancient document known as the City Charter, which is essentially Chicago’s constitution.

Some aldermen are insisting that once the next mayor takes office, they’re going to reclaim the powers granted to them by the city fathers. So Ward Room sought out the City Charter, to find out exactly what those powers are. We found a copy on the third floor of the Harold Washington Library, in the Municipal Reference Section. It was dated 1866. At that time, the city had six wards, and 200,000 people.

Here’s what it says about the City Council’s role in government:

The Common Council shall have … the general management and control of the finances, and all the property, real, personal and mixed, belonging to the corporation…The Common Council shall have power to require from any officer of said city, at any time, a report in detail of the transactions in his office, or of any other matter the council deems necessary.

And here’s what it says about the mayor’s role:

The mayor shall provide over the meetings of the common council, and take care that the laws of the State and the order of the city are duly enforced, respected and observed, and that all the executive officers of the city discharge their respective duties. He shall, from time to time, give the Common Council such information, and recommend such measures as he may deem advantageous to the city.

That seems pretty clear. The Council controls the purse strings, and the mayor is an elected city manager, required to submit reports whenever the aldermen ask. Of course, that’s not how it works. Ever since Richard J. Daley took office, the mayor has controlled the purse strings. He writes the budget, and submits it to the council for (usually) unanimous approval.

“With the money coming in, the next step was to make sure that he, not the aldermen, did the spending,” Mike Royko wrote in Boss. “The council had always made the city’s budget. That ended. Daley would create the budget, then almost half a billion a year.”

One could argue that today’s Chicago is much more complicated than the frontier city of the 19th Century, and that entrusting its finances to 50 squabbling aldermen is a recipe for chaos. One could also argue that the president of the United States should not have to ask Congress for permission to go to war. But that’s how the United States Constitution is written.

In Monday’s debate, Rahm Emanuel declared that “there will be some committees closed, chairmanships will change.” That suggests he wants to continue the recent mayoral tradition of riding herd over the City Council.

At least one alderman isn’t having it.

“The City Council is the only legislative body in the Western world that acts like the Soviet Politburo,” Ald. Joe Moore told the Tribune. “Unless we act like sheep again, it's not really (Emanuel’s) prerogative (to change the council). He doesn’t have inherent power. We surrender it.”

 But Moore is just one alderman. Will the other 49 have the spine to exercise the responsibilities granted them nearly 200 years ago?

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