Ever since the late 19th century, the Chicago City Council has tended to suffer from a rather poor reputation: ineffective, low ethical standards, an old boys club. Back then, men such as Alderman "Bathhouse" John Coughlin were known for using their offices to create wealth for themselves, while furnishing the Levee, a red light district on the Southside, with a wide variety of naughty entertainment.
Today, most of the aldermen are less colorful, but reputational issues remain. For example, since 1970, 31 aldermen have been convicted of crimes, while the city council has largely failed to serve as a legislative check on the leadership of Chicago mayors. With that in mind, it seems appropriate for Chicagoans to put forth a modest proposal for reforming our city government.
First, we should dramatically reduce the size of the city council. Currently, with 50 members, Chicago has one of the largest city councils in the United States. A more appropriate size would be 17 members, each representing approximately 159,000 constituents. This would make a Chicago alderman's representative duties similar to that of New York and Houston legislators and less than the 250,000 constituents that a Los Angeles municipal councilman represents.
This reform would have several benefits, including strengthening the city council's power relative to the mayor. With larger political bases, it is likely that some Chicago alderman would grow in stature and that the council as a whole would become a more effective check on the executive branch of the city. The shrinking of the city council would also lessen the chance of "rubber stamp" votes on important issues, such as the $1.2 billion parking meter deal -- later known as the parking meter fiasco -- in December 2008.
In addition, with a smaller city council, the position of alderman could be converted from part-time to full-time, and the salary of each representative could be more than doubled from its current $110,000 level. This structural change would draw more talented individuals into city government, reduce the temptation of corruption and actually lower the overall budget for the council.
Second, we should set term limits for every elected official in Chicago city government, including the mayor and the aldermen. This proposal is based on a view of human nature consistent with that espoused by the British politician and historian Lord Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." A study of our long-serving mayors of Chicago also supports this idea: the majority of their accomplishments occurred during the first decade in office, while their fatal flaws tended to surface near the end of their mayoral reigns. Similarly, the historical record indicates that nothing good is accomplished by aldermen who have stay in office for decades. With that in mind, two terms of six years seems appropriate for the mayor, while alderman could be limited to three terms of four years. These new term limits would encourage our city representatives to bring vigor, ethics and innovative ideas to their offices, knowing that a return to the private sector was inevitable.
Finally, we should push the city council to stop paying legal fees for aldermen who are under criminal investigation. Although there is no formal policy on the matter, it has been the Finance Committee's custom since the early 1980s to pay the legal fees of aldermen accused of criminal acts. This inappropriate use of taxpayer money should stop now.
Chicagoans should have the opportunity to go to the polls and vote on these proposals -- a smaller, more incentivized city council; term limits for all politicians; and a requirement that aldermen under criminal investigation should pay their own legal fees -- in a binding referendum. Let the voters decide.
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