Alds. Anthony Beale (9th Ward) and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) each have introduced ordinances that would shift funds from the city’s law department to City Council and establish a staff of legal, parliamentarian and analyst specialists to support alderpersons in their legislative duties. Both bills are currently held in the Committee on Rules, and would need either committee chair Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) or a majority of the committee to call a vote to advance to the full City Council.
The Better Government Association’s Policy Team urges City Council to take up the bills, and recommends a compromise between the two proposals that would ensure a fully independent parliamentarian, codify and clarify committees’ powers of investigation and subpoena, and consolidate legislative support roles into a single office from their current fragmented distribution across ward offices, council offices, and committees.
Why it’s important
To some extent, legal and parliamentary support already exists, but in fragmented form. Each alderperson receives a yearly stipend for three full-time staff in their ward office, whose duties are assigned by the alderperson. In practice, though, the staff positions usually are focused on ward-level city services, not legislative and analytical roles, which also are allowed. In addition, City Council’s 2022 budget includes roughly $5.49 million in staffing for various legislative support staffs:
$276,732 for a Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA), which provides independent analysis of bills with a budgetary impact, including the mayor’s annual budget proposals. COFA staff is overseen by the chair of the Committee on Budget and Operations, currently Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward).
$379,058 for a Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which helps draft and review alderpersons’ legislative language. LRB staff is overseen by the President Pro Tempore of City Council, a position currently held by Ald. Reilly.
$4.83 million in committee staff, with each committee chair overseeing their committee’s staff. The city’s inspector general roundly criticized committee staffing practices in an October 2021 report, which found that multiple committees failed to track staff hours and assigned staff to tasks unrelated to committee work (and often related to constituent service work in the committee chair’s ward).
That fragmentation creates a disparity in personnel resources between nominally equal elected representatives: Committee chairs and the President Pro Tempore directly supervise and set assignments for staff who are paid out of the budget for City Council as a whole.
Alderpersons rarely discuss the arrangements in public, but committee chairships and their additional staffing are widely seen as a perk or a reward for loyalty to the mayor.
In the absence of dedicated legal counsel for City Council, the city’s Department of Law provides parliamentary advice at meetings of City Council and its committees. This advice almost always is offered to the mayor, who chairs Council meetings.
Alderpersons have argued that a mayoral appointee cannot provide unbiased advice on which motions or items of business may or may not move forward under City Council’s rules, which use a modified form of the popular parliamentary framework Robert’s Rules of Order.
Ald. Beale, who has tried multiple times to have his bill called for a vote, points to the various parliamentary maneuvers used to thwart him as evidence of City Council’s need for independent counsel available to all 50 alderpersons.
The proposed ordinances
Beale’s ordinance (O2021-2901) and Reilly’s (O2022-656) are largely similar in their vision for a strengthened legislative support office. In both, City Council would appoint an independent director for a protected four-year term, similar to the city’s inspectors general, who once appointed may only be dismissed “for cause,” i.e. wrongdoing or failure to perform their duties. Both bills add legal counsel regarding legislation and parliamentary procedure to the existing drafting and analysis role already taken on by Legislative Reference Bureau staff. And both appropriate funds for the new director and additional staff from dollars currently earmarked for two vacant Department of Law positions.
There remain substantial points of difference between the laws, however:
Reilly’s ordinance adds language clarifying City Council’s investigatory powers under state law, including a process for committees to subpoena individuals or evidence; Beale’s ordinance does not have an investigatory component.
Reilly’s ordinance retains language putting the office under the “control, supervision, and direction of the President Pro Tempore,” while Beale’s puts all administrative control under the new director hired by City Council to oversee the department.
Beale’s ordinance folds financial analysis into the new office’s duties and eliminates the separate Council Office of Financial Analysis currently overseen by the chair of the Budget Committee; Reilly’s ordinance leaves the two analysis teams separate.
For a detailed comparison of the two bills, see: Side by Side Comparison of City Council Parliamentarian Bills
Both bills propose elements of necessary reform. The BGA recommends a compromise bill that would include the following:
Clarified investigative powers: The subpoena powers and ability of council committees to hold investigatory hearings are already granted by state law, though City Council has not led any significant investigations in recent history. Reilly’s bill clarifies the process by which committee chairs can conduct investigations and call witnesses.
It’s an open question whether the City Council would start using that authority, and could make for dramatic changes in the balance of power if committees turn their investigatory eye on the city’s administrative departments and sister agencies. City Council already has the power to call hearings and investigate the actions of large, impactful bodies such as the Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Public Schools, and Chicago Park District, but historically has not taken an active investigatory role or exercised its subpoena powers. Clearly laid-out hearing and subpoena processes to empower and encourage that oversight would be a welcome addition to the Municipal Code.
Clear administrative independence: Both ordinances have City Council as a whole hiring the new director by majority vote, and give the position a protected four-year term, so it’s unclear what “control, supervision, and direction” the President Pro Tempore would exercise under Reilly’s version. This lack of clarity potentially sets up conflicts between the director and the President Pro Tempore. Beale’s bill includes explicit language giving the director full power to hire and fire staff and direct their assignments and operations, which would provide a more independent office and eliminate a potential gatekeeper role within City Council. In both bills, the guaranteed term and for-cause dismissal protections are solid additions that will help the office act independently, much as they have for the Office of the Inspector General. The provisions should be retained.
Consolidated staff roles: From an efficiency standpoint, Beale’s consolidation of COFA into the new office makes sense – alderpersons should be able to get both a legal and a financial analysis of potential pieces of new legislation from the same source, and the support staff would benefit from working in coordination rather than on separate tracks. Further consolidation of the substantially better-funded committee staffs into the legislative support office would be an even bolder move, and a welcome one, replacing unaccountable staff working on behalf of individual committee chairs with a shared resource pool available to all alderpersons.
Ordinance and council rules changes to empower an independent parliamentarian: Under either version, the addition of City Council’s own legal advisor and parliamentarian should provide a helpful counterbalance to the mayor, who as the presiding officer of City Council has the power to rule on what motions or business will or will not advance. Both bills as currently proposed contain language empowering the director of the legislative support office to act as the City Council’s official parliamentarian on the floor and to provide procedural advice at the request of any member, replacing the Department of Law staff in that role. The necessary changes to the Rules of Order and Procedure should be retained in any final version of the bill.
Will anything change?
Ultimately, in cases where the mayor’s ruling disagrees with the advice of the parliamentarian, it will still be up to the City Council to overturn those rulings by an affirmative majority vote. That’s a question of political courage, not of procedure and staffing. City Council has a long history of reflexively deferring to powerful mayors, and changes to the written rules will need to be accompanied by active exercise of the body’s new and existing powers to be a meaningful reform.