By Glenn Reedus
On the surface, mayoral candidate Bill Daley’s recommendation on reducing the size of the Chicago City Council has some merit. Daley is proposing slicing the council by two thirds-taking the number of aldermen from 50 to 15. After all, it seems like fewer council members would mean a savings for this cash-strapped city. Losing those 35 seats translates into $3.5 million less in city council salaries. That would, on the surface, take the council’s budget down to $218 million.
It also might appear that such a reduction would immediately mean more than $40 million would not be dispensed as “menu” money. Each alderman currently receives $1.4 million for infrastructure improvements or menu money. However, there really is no savings because the demands of the same number of residents would still exist. Infrastructure dollars would still be needed. So, there is no savings in that area.
Another factor that speaks in favor of such a reduction is that of the 10 largest U.S. cities, the average number of council members is 19. Only New York City, which has three times the population of Chicago, has more city council members, at 51. However, the reasons the reductions aren’t a good idea are even more plentiful.
In introducing the idea, Daley failed to address the issue that fewer council members means fewer people working. The men and women employed in each of the aldermen’s offices earn a middle class income. Public sector work has long been the ladder many inner city residents climb to reach middle class status. The Daley reduction idea removes that possibility for hundreds of African-American and Latino men and women. The average number of employees in an alderman’s office is four.
Cutting council members actually begs more questions, including financial ones, than it provides answers. The brother of a former mayor didn’t say why he is tossing this idea into the political ecosystem now. The best guess is he wants to distinguish himself from the hordes of opponents he is facing February 26. Daley has started what seems to be the idea-a-day strategy. Every day one week, he had a different suggestion for improving Chicago, including replacing local school councils (LSC) with neighborhood councils. The idea bombed out of the starting gate.
It is questionable to discuss this idea now because next year the U. S. Census Bureau will conduct its decennial survey. Then in 2021, the Chicago City Council will be charged with redrawing ward maps based on the population shifts. The current ward maps, based on the 2010 census, show that some African-American wards have substantially fewer residents than many North Side counterparts. There is a paucity of African Americans in those wards.
While Daley hasn’t detailed how the change will be brought about – state legislation or city referendum – it is clear a Daley-type reduction will decimate Black wards. For instance, the 42nd Ward checks in with nearly 79,000 residents, compared to the 3rd Ward. That ward takes in Bronzeville and a part of the South Loop, and has a paltry 40,500 residents.
Along with that reality is the fact that in four other South Side wards the population is less than 47,000 each according to Crain’s Chicago Business magazine.
Those wards, the 5th, 7th, 16th and 17th are not contiguous. The obvious question is, will the 2021 redraw of ward maps consolidate them, thus providing Black residents with even less representation on the council. Once the redraw occurs what would happen if Daley gets his way? Those wards, like others in the Black community, stand the possibility of becoming non-existent.
Chicago’s population has long been said to be divided in three equal racial parts- African American, Latino and Caucasian. A Brown University American Communities Project report lists Chicago as the most segregated city among the nation’s 100 most populous cities. That divide also means residents go about their day-to-day existence in ethnic enclaves. A shift to 15 council members clearly means hundreds of thousands of residents would be represented by folks wholly unfamiliar with those communities’ mores, needs, and history.
Daley’s army of advisers are leading the candidate into a battle he can’t win. If his reduction idea is pushed would-be backers certainly will turn to one of his more formidable Black opponents, Amara Enyia, Toni Preckwinkle or Willie Wilson as their choice. In a race with a dozen candidates, no one running can afford to distance himself or herself from Black voters.