Chicago’s City Council is off to a slow start in 2023: Only about 40% of its time in session so far this year – or about two of every five hours between the opening and closing gavels– has been spent legislating. The other 60% was spent noting significant birthdays, retirements, tributes and other non-binding resolutions.
That’s even less time spent on legislation than usual, a BGA Policy analysis of City Council recordings found. Over the course of 49 meetings held since City Council began posting video recordings in November 2019, one-third of the active meeting time – from the commencement of regular business following public comment to the adjournment gavel at the end – has been spent on tributary, memorial or otherwise honorary matters.
All told, the body has spent just over 46 hours discussing honorary resolutions and just shy of 91 hours dedicated to substantive matters, an almost perfect one-third to two-thirds split.
At meetings where honorary resolutions were heard, they took up an average of 1:07:29 of floor time. The average time spent on non-honorary business was 1:51:09.
“…temporarily suspend the rules…”
The standard agenda for Chicago’s City Council does not include honorary resolutions as an item of business, though regular council watchers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
At nearly every City Council meeting, at least once and sometimes at multiple points throughout the agenda, a member will rise and offer some variation on the telltale phrase, “I move that we temporarily suspend the rules to allow for immediate consideration…”
Typically approved by a simple “hearing no objections, so ordered,” or sometimes by a voice vote (“all in favor say aye, all opposed say nay; the ayes have it”), the suspension of rules allows for items to be heard out of turn. In practice, it serves as an open invitation for alderpersons to rise, be recognized and take their turn speaking on behalf of worthy institutions, retiring employees, honorary months and days, and similar topics.
Resolutions are most commonly discussed immediately following the public comment period, but because there is no scheduled agenda item for them, they can be heard at any time, and the suspension of rules means there is no limit on how many can be heard, or how long each member may speak. At 14 of the 49 meetings reviewed by BGA Policy, the rules were suspended multiple times to allow non-binding business to be heard.
Only eight of the Council’s 49 recorded regular meetings had no honorary resolutions at all: five meetings to vote on the city budget (which sometimes requires multiple meetings each year), a short meeting on the city’s casino proposal, and the very first remote meeting of the pandemic, during which rules and procedures for remote participation were discussed and approved.
Chicago is unique among the nation’s largest cities in devoting so much floor time to honorary measures, and in allowing them to take place at any time throughout the meeting:
- New York’s city council allows floor time only for resolutions approved by a committee and limits individual members to a timer-enforced one minute of speech on honorary resolutions.
- Los Angeles passes the vast majority of its honorary resolutions without discussion via approval of a “Commendatory Resolutions” agenda item. Speeches similar to those seen at Chicago’s City Council are sometimes given as “announcements” at the end of the meeting, immediately before adjournment, rather than as a piece of floor business in the middle of the meeting.
- Houston’s city council rules limit “presentations regarding public interest” to three per meeting, each limited to no more than 10 minutes. They are presented at the very beginning of the meeting, before the regular agenda.
“…return to the regular order of business…”
Regular Council meetings are scheduled to start at 10 a.m. one Wednesday each month. Getting alderpersons in their seats and taking a quorum call required to legally commence business adds a few minutes, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, an invocation and a half hour of public comment. Honorary resolutions usually – though not always – come next, adding on average another hour or more and putting the council near or past noon by the time legislative work begins.
The substantially delayed start of regular business creates a number of spillover effects at City Council meetings. Members of the public – both those who came to provide public comment and those simply observing – already commit a substantial portion of their days to line up well in advance of the first gavel. Securing a spot for public comment is a challenge in its own right, requiring the would-be commenter to call an automated line several days in advance, and then wait for a confirmation call from the city during a fixed window the day before the meeting.
The Council’s current practices mean attendees who wish to watch the legislative section of the agenda are trapped for an additional hour-plus, on average, listening to honorary speeches. In nearly all cases, those speeches will last longer (and often have better attendance on the floor) than the strict half-hour dedicated to public comment, the only formal opportunity residents have to address their legislature as a whole.
The long gap between the start of Council and the start of legislative business also has an impact on alderpersons. By the time any contested or controversial matters arise on the floor, representatives have been in their seats for hours. It is clear to anyone observing City Council sessions that members of the body become increasingly willing to shout down parliamentary procedures calling for discussion or roll-call votes – which extend the meeting – as the clock ticks later into the day.
Resolutions can have the unintended effect of crowding out the time the City Council spends conducting actual business. When resolutions run longer, the BGA Policy analysis found, the time devoted to policy matters is cut short. The duration of a Council session is not a fixed, zero-sum quantity – spending more time on resolutions does not need to mean spending less time on regular business – but in practice it almost always does.
Overall, the City Council spends just over one-third of its meeting time on resolutions and two-thirds on business. At the 10 meetings with the most time spent on resolutions, however, that ratio nearly inverted: for every minute of legislative business at those meetings, Council spent more than a minute and a half on honorary resolutions.
Removing — or at least moving — City Council’s resolutions
Worthy though the topics of most resolutions might be, there’s limited public value in allowing them to take up more than a third of the City Council’s legislative agenda. Alderpersons have real and pressing policy challenges to address, and they draw substantial salaries to do so.
The simplest of all possible solutions would be to simply ban the practice altogether, reserving the legislative calendar for legislative items. Alderpersons have access to City Hall’s podiums and meeting spaces, and can easily call a press conference honoring anyone or anything they wish to — on their own time.
Alternatively, resolutions could be handled at special sessions of City Council, which can be called by any three alderpersons but still require a quorum to proceed. 26 alderpersons willing to show up for a special session is a clear indication of genuine honoring by the legislature for the topic or topics at hand.
At a minimum, the Council should consider adopting procedures like those used by other major cities, keeping resolutions at a dedicated time slot either at the beginning or end of the agenda, limiting the number of honorary resolutions that can be heard, and limiting individual speaking time to brief remarks. That would allow legislators to legislate, first and foremost, and would substantially lessen the multiple-hour delay that members of the public currently face if they attend City Council in person or follow along via the Council’s livestream.
Download the data used in this analysis here.