NEWS

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February 15, 2019

What Do Chicago's Aldermen Do?


Adrian Mandeville / The Chicago Maroon

Ahead of the upcoming city elections, The Maroon is publishing a series of explainers on the offices and issues Chicagoans will be voting on.


In the 20th Ward, nine candidates are vying for the seat of alderman. In the Fifth Ward, two fresh-faced candidates are challenging a long-time alderman. In the Fourth Ward, a popular incumbent who was appointed is now facing her first general election.

The city’s 50 aldermen make up City Council, the legislative body of Chicago’s city government. The aldermen who are elected in the 20th, Fifth, and Fourth wards will craft legislation affecting residents and local businesses in Hyde Park and Woodlawn, and will have the final say in how money flows through their districts, shaping major development projects around campus.

The Maroon looks into the functions of the position and explains some of the most widely discussed issues.

Functions of the Aldermen:

The powers and duties of the aldermen include:

  • Legislating: Aldermen propose and vote on legislation concerning both the whole city and certain wards. They also vote on the annual budget which is submitted by the mayor.

  • Improving infrastructure: Aldermen are given $1 million every year to spend on their ward’s infrastructure needs. Some aldermen have their constituents vote on what improvements they would like, while others decide on their own. For additional spending, aldermen must request money from City Council.

  • Sitting on committees: Aldermen are assigned by City Council (and most recently have been appointed by the mayor) to 17 committees broken down by policy. Legislation must first be approved by the committee overseeing the policy area the legislation falls under before getting voted on by the whole City Council.

  • Using aldermanic privilege: Aldermen have the final say in any developments and zoning changes that occur in their ward. The privilege is considered to be a check on development firms that have large amounts of sway over City Hall and City Council, but have at times facilitated corruption by aldermen.

Platforms: For the People?

The candidates in the aldermanic races have said a lot about how they will make City Council more effective and their wards better places. But with corruption, tax-increment financing reform, and a Community Benefits Agreement ordinance for the Obama Presidential Center on the table, there is a lot to be considered and understood about what exactly they are saying and promising to their future constituents.

Aldermanic Privilege

The scandals involving 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke and 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis are only the most recent examples of a long history of corruption in City Hall. In the 20th Ward, three out of the last four aldermen have gone to prison, including the incumbent Willie Cochran.

The question of how aldermen are so easily corrupted is something that Chicagoans have been asking for decades. Some policy researchers consider aldermanic privilege to be a reason for this.

Aldermanic privilege is unwritten—the power comes from a precedent of allowing aldermen to have final say over what happens in their ward. Developers often offer the opportunity to build projects in the ward for campaign contributions, resulting in a game of quid pro quo that many aldermen have participated in (and gotten caught for) over the years. This control over development can also result in preventing the creation of necessary affordable housing units and perpetuating segregation in the city.

Many candidates have been calling for an end to aldermanic privilege. However, individuals like 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack are skeptical that the aldermen will vote on the issue once they are newly elected.

“I doubt we’ll see any votes on it. Once they see how high-handed [the city government] is, they will change their minds pretty quick,” Waguespack told Bisnow Chicago.

The privilege can serve as a check on the amount of power that the mayor and other aldermen have over each alderman’s ward. Most recently, Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell has opposed the opening of a CTA Red Line station in her ward, fearing the station will be too disruptive for her residents.

But in other cases, like Alderman Edward Burke extorting a business owner who asked for a renovation permit, the power is abused.

Current aldermen like Waguespack and experts believe that the solution is not to try and eliminate aldermanic privilege, but instead to curb their power. Term limits, banning outside income that may cause a conflict of interest, requiring disclosure of any conflicts, participatory budgeting that increases the amount of say other aldermen have in developments, and requiring strict compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are some of the ways through which this can be accomplished.

Of the candidates in the Fourth, Fifth, and 20th wards, Leslie Hairston of the Fifth and Kevin Bailey of the 20th are viewed most skeptically with respect to their political integrity.

Bailey’s family has come under fire by election judges for allegedly telling certain judges that they would not be appointed unless they became petition circulators for Bailey’s campaign. 65 percent of the current election judges in the 20th Ward were appointed by either Bailey or his mother, Maria Bailey.

Opponents of Leslie Hairston say that she has neglected the Fifth Ward in favor of pursuing the Obama Presidential Center and South Shore Golf Course despite constituent concerns. Opponents have also noted her 100 percent record of voting with the mayor, calling her independence as an alderman into question.

Tax-Increment Financing (TIF)

Candidates have frequently talked about reforming tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, but what the TIF districts actually are often goes unsaid.

TIF districts are intended to spark economic development in blighted areas. The tax districts are required to be in areas deemed “blighted” by a consulting firm. Within the district, the city sets a base property tax based on current property values. The base property tax then stays the same for 23 years, and if property values increase due to economic development, then the additional revenues generated above the revenues collected by the base property tax go towards building infrastructure within the district, ideally attracting developers and inciting economic activity that feeds into itself.

Residents and candidates have questioned TIF districts though, noting that there are other geographical areas and policy areas in the city that could use the additional tax revenues—especially revenues from TIF districts that have seen rapid economic development, such as the West Loop. People have also questioned how TIF funds, totalling $660 million in the city, are used within their designated district— whether they’re actually used for community development or for bankrolling beautification projects such as Navy Pier renovations.

Aldermen do not have control over direct spending of TIF dollars, but they can vote on legislation surrounding TIF districts and on spending proposals that are crafted using TIF funds. Those running in the Fourth, Fifth, and 20th wards have heavily advocated for for TIF reform. Jeanette Taylor of the 20th Ward race told the Chicago Sun-Times that she “would support a moratorium on the creation of new TIFs, work to allocate surplus funds to schools and end the use of TIF dollars for projects in the Loop and Gold Coast.”

All of the candidates endorse the redistribution of funds towards lower-income areas in need of further development. Whether or not they vote on proposed reforms—which have been stalled for the last two years—will determine the future of TIF districts.

Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Center

The Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) ordinance for the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) is a hotly contested topic in the Fifth and 20th wards. It will appear as a referendum on the ballot.

The CBA ordinance would legally bind the Obama Foundation, the City, and the University of Chicago to a set of requirements regarding rent control and employment opportunities intended to prevent displacement of local residents. Opponents of the CBA ordinance have insisted that activists’ proposed measures could tamp down the economic development and employment opportunities the Obama Presidential Center could bring.

Barack Obama has voiced concerns that a CBA would only allow a select number of community groups to represent the entire South Side in matters regarding the OPC.

The OPC would lie in Jackson Park in the Fifth Ward. Incumbent alderman Leslie Hairston is opposed to a CBA ordinance, whereas her opponents—William Calloway and Gabriel Piemonte—are both in favor.

Hairston has long said she is working on a community stabilization plan ahead of the OPC coming into the ward.

In the 20th Ward, all of the candidates have come around to supporting the CBA. Though the OPC lies in the adjacent Fifth Ward, the 20th Ward Alderman would have stakes in agreements and potential legislation surrounding the OPC because their constituents would likely feel the impacts—whether beneficial or not—of increased economic activity brought by the OPC.

The CBA ordinance referendum on the ballot is nonbinding, meaning City Council does not have to pass the ordinance nor even vote on it if the referendum passes, but the next 20th Ward Alderman could be influential in bringing the CBA ordinance to a vote in City Council.

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