The Chicago City Council’s Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics (CCRE) met on December 1, 2015 to appoint two people to the city’s board of ethics. The committee’s chairman, Alderman Michelle Harris, was not present for the vote; neither were any of the three vice chairmen, Aldermen Carrie Austin, Ed Burke, and Marty Quinn. In a room filled with empty seats, seven of the committee’s fifty members confirmed the appointees by voice vote. The other thirty-nine were nowhere to be found.
On average, almost fifty percent of aldermen skip out on the CCRE each time it convenes. It may come as little surprise that discussions on bylaws, meeting procedures, and organizational disputes don’t draw huge crowds, but the CCRE isn’t unique in its shoddy attendance. In fact, a number of arguably less wonky committees have worse absence rates, including the Committee on Education and Child Development, where one can expect less than forty-five percent of members to show up. Of City Council’s sixteen standing committees, only two have boasted an average attendance of more than seventy-five percent over the last six years.
Although final votes do not occur in committee, when aldermen don’t show up to committee meetings, they miss out on discussions of substantive legislation. In doing so, they remove their voice, and the voice of their constituents, from the table. According to data from the Chicago City Clerk’s office, the average alderman made it to roughly seventy-two percent of their total meetings between January 2011 and January 2017. The data was collected from the clerk’s LegiStar database and covers about seventy percent of all meetings during this timeframe.
Among sitting aldermen, attendance rates vary widely, ranging from some at more than ninety percent to others just above fifty percent. Over the last six years, eight sitting aldermen have played hooky for more than four of every ten meetings—Aldermen Michael Zalewski (23rd Ward), Daniel Solis (25th Ward), Ricardo Muñoz (22nd Ward), Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st Ward), Carrie Austin (34th Ward), Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward), George Cardenas (12th Ward), and Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st Ward) each have attendance rates between fifty and sixty percent.
On the other end of the spectrum, five aldermen boast attendance rates of over ninety percent—freshmen Aldermen Michael Scott, Jr. (24th Ward), Gregory Mitchell (7th Ward), Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), and Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward), along with Alderman Ariel Reboyras, who’s helmed the 30th Ward since 2003.
All Meetings Are Not Equal
To better understand these rates, it helps to break them down into two different figures: attendance at City Council general meetings and attendance at committee meetings. For the most part, aldermen show up to City Council meetings. That’s where bills get final approval and the public sees their aldermen at work. Nobody’s attendance rate at City Council dips below eighty-six percent. In fact, there are twenty-four aldermen who haven’t missed a single meeting.
It’s the committee meetings that mostly drive variance in attendance. When examining only committee data, the rates drop across the board. Aldermen Scott and Reboyras still lead the pack with attendance above ninety percent, but at the bottom of the pile, rates for Aldermen Brookins, Cardenas, and Maldonado stand at or below forty percent.
Among sitting aldermen, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the importance of attending committee meetings. For Brookins, “all committee meetings are not equal.” While he tries to attend meetings that involve important hearings and debate, he views most as mere procedure, passing along uneventful service items like stop signs, awnings, and parking permits. If the legislative items don’t relate to his ward, he finds no value in being there for approval.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing out if [the meeting involves] nothing controversial,” he said. “I’m not going to a meeting to waste my time.”
Though Brookins said he was unaware he missed sixty percent of his committee meetings since 2011, he gave a couple explanations for his low attendance. He first noted that his private law practice requires him to make his schedule up to a month in advance, and if a committee meeting gets called on short notice, it sometimes overlaps with prior obligations.
“If I have a conflict and there’s nothing major in that meeting then I’m going to what I have previously scheduled,” he said.
Brookins also said he belongs to more committees than many of his colleagues, so when meetings overlap, it’s impossible to attend both. However, like Brookins, 30th Ward Alderman Ariel Reboyras also sits on ten committees, but his attendance rate is more than forty points higher.
While Reboyras concedes that many meetings involve mostly routine items, for him, showing up is no less important. And show up he does. Reboyras boasts the second highest attendance rate of any sitting alderman, at 92.7 percent. His committee attendance comes in at 91.6 percent, just a tenth of a point shy of freshman Alderman Scott, who holds the top spot.
“I think the least we can do as elected officials is be present when there’s a committee hearing on any subject matter, no matter how difficult it might be, no matter how easy of a vote it’s going to be,” Reboyras said. “It’s key that when you are the representative of a ward you are there representing the people who voted you in.”
Civic obligation aside, Reboyras believes aldermen can reap concrete benefits from attending meetings, even on the most mundane issues. He recalls many instances during his tenure when service legislation proposed by other aldermen sparked new ideas he could use in his own ward.
What’s especially notable about Reboyras’s attendance rate is how long he’s kept it up. Among the city’s top ten best-attending aldermen, only four took office before 2015. Reboyras and 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell are the only aldermen in the top ten who took office before 2011. According to the data, consistent attendance doesn’t usually last as long as Reboyras’s thirteen-year tenure. Freshman aldermen tend to show up frequently early in their terms, but their absences increase over time. For the thirty-six sitting alderman who took office before 2015, the average attendance rate stands at 70.9 percent. On the other hand, the fourteen aldermen who took office in 2015 or later average about eighty-one percent attendance. As these freshman aldermen’s terms continue, their attendance rates may slowly decline to the long-term average.
Legislative Heavy Lifting
Political researcher Dick Simpson finds committee attendance an especially telling indicator of aldermen’s involvement in the legislative process. A political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former 44th Ward alderman, Simpson said committee meetings are where the majority of legislating takes place. Though most committee meetings do involve the passage of bills covering ward service items, debate and discussion over substantive, city-wide legislation also occur here. Thus, he said, if someone wants to have a said in how broad policy changes get put into effect, they need to show up to their committees. In Simpson’s eyes, aldermen who fail to attend committees are selling their constituents short.
“They aren’t staying on top of legislation,” he said. “They’re not even seeing opportunities for service legislation they should be guiding through the council. My general sense is that the aldermen who don’t attend are among the worst aldermen.”
By going through the motions and removing themselves from committee discussions, aldermen cede more control to committee chairmen, whose presence at the table is essentially guaranteed. Chairmen make their meetings ninety-seven percent of the time on average. Part of this may have to do with scheduling—chairs call the meetings, so they won’t plan one if they can’t attend—but beyond that, they’re the members carrying real power. Chairmen determine what hearings get held, what legislation comes before committee, and how it’s introduced to the council. Without general members there to voice potential opposition, the chairman’s agenda gets a virtual fast-pass to City Council.
Depending on the chair’s political allegiances, this could render the committee a rubber stamp for the mayor’s legislation. For instance, 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke chairs the Committee on Finance, arguably the most powerful standing committee. Since the City Clerk began collecting data in 2011, Burke hasn’t missed a single finance committee meeting. A study by Dick Simpson and other researchers from UIC also found that Burke sided with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in one hundred percent of the divided (non-unanimous) roll call votes between June 2015 and April 2016. If Burke, and transitively Emanuel, control the money, they control Chicago government. Opposing this “rubber stamp city council,” as Simpson’s study calls it, requires aldermen to constantly and actively participate in discussion of the complex issues Chicago government deals with. This requires grasping the issues in the first place. Simpson said one of the biggest black boxes in Chicago government is the city budget, which he speculates few aldermen truly understand.
“It takes work to study the city budget,” he said. “It’s easy enough if you just want something for your ward. You can get the administration department to put in a budget line for your one item. But to actually understand the budget and try to find money so all sorts of things can be done for the city, most aldermen don’t do that heavy lifting.”
Holding Aldermen Accountable
The unfortunate truth is that aldermen generally have little incentive to attend committees to which they were appointed. Unlike City Council meetings, where the press and the public can call out absentees, only a couple committees, like the Committee on Finance, get fairly consistent media coverage. If constituents want to keep an eye on their aldermen themselves, they have to navigate the convoluted LegiStar database where the City Clerk’s office keeps public records. Frequently, the information isn’t even there. The data used for this story encompasses only 69.4 percent of City Council and committee meetings. The other 30.6 percent of meetings don’t have publicly available attendance records.
According to a source at the Office of the City Clerk, even though the clerk’s office operates LegiStar, the individual committees are responsible for submitting their own records. Because the committees have no legal obligation to submit records for public display, they directly control how much the public does or doesn’t know.
Some committees are more secretive than others. While the Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development published attendance records for all but three of its fifty-one meetings over the last six years, the Committee on Finance operates more off the grid. It submitted attendance records for about sixty-four percent of its 133 meetings. The Committee on Budget and Government Operations convened 128 times since January 2011, but only forty-nine attendance records are available.
Without a basic level of transparency, constituents cannot accurately track their alderman’s attendance. And if aldermen know they won’t face repercussions for absences, they have less incentive to show up. Insufficient public accountability frees aldermen to do as they please, whether that’s committee chairmen chauffeuring the mayor’s agenda through City Council or aldermen removing themselves from the process altogether.
Correction, April 5, 2017
This story has been updated to reflect the following change:
A previous version of the story misstated the results of the December 1, 2015 vote in the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics (CCRE). The prior version incorrectly stated that four aldermen voted in opposition to the appointees. Only seven aldermen were present, and all of them voted to confirm the appointees.
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