Produced by the BGA's Civic Engagement team, the BGA Backstory project is a non-partisan guide to Illinois' most important government issues. Don't see what you're looking for? Ask us your burning questions about Illinois government.
Chicago City Council
What is the Chicago City Council?
The Chicago City Council is the legislative body1 of the City of Chicago and is granted its powers by the state legislature and the Illinois Constitution. It is tasked with the creation and amendment of laws for the City of Chicago. The City Council has 50 members—one for each ward. The Council meets at Chicago’s City Hall.
1 Chicago Councilmatic, About.
How are members of the City Council chosen?
Council members, known as aldermen, are elected to four-year terms in nonpartisan balloting. These elections are held ward-by-ward at the same time as the citywide mayoral election every four years. The elections take place on the last Tuesday of February in the year before the presidential election. By that rule, the next Chicago aldermanic and mayoral elections will be held February 26, 2019.
If no candidate receives a majority of votes for alderman or mayor, a runoff election between the two leading vote-getters will be held five weeks later, on April 2, 2019.
If a Council member leaves the position for any reason, the mayor is empowered to fill that vacancy by appointment until the next election. This gives the mayor significant influence over the Council, which is why it has been known in recent decades as a legislative body largely compliant with the mayor’s wishes.
The number and role of Chicago aldermen remain contentious issues, with many arguing that the size of the council should be reduced.1 Critics also complain that aldermen are overpaid2 and oftentimes corrupt.3
Mini-profiles of the 50 aldermen are available here.
You can find your own alderman using the Ward/Aldermanic/Zone Look-Up Tool.
1 Better Government Association, Should Chicago cut the size of its city council? BGA analysis does the math.
2 Chicago Sun-Times, Letters to the Editor, If you think state lawmakers are overpaid, get a load of the Chicago City Council, Apr.25, 2018.
3 Id. Also see, John Cass, Is Chicago really that corrupt? Yes., Chicago Tribune, Dec.14, 2016.
Who runs Chicago City Council?
The mayor of Chicago serves as the presiding officer of the Council, which means he runs Council meetings. However, the mayor cannot vote on any ordinance or resolution being considered by the Council, with two exceptions. The mayor can vote to break a tie, and the mayor can vote if such a vote would create a majority in situations where the Illinois Municipal Code requires a majority vote to pass an ordinance, resolution, or motion.1
The current mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel, who is not running for re-election. Chicago’s new mayor, to be elected in February or in an April runoff if necessary, will take office in May.
Other major centers of power in the Council are the committee chairmanships. Aldermen holding those positions have considerable influence on whether proposed ordinances advance.
In addition to the mayor, other city officers work closely with the Council, including:
The city clerk, who is responsible for maintaining, storing, and recording city documents. The clerk’s office is also responsible for publishing a legislative record that tracks official actions by the City Council. The current city clerk is Anna Valencia.2
The city treasurer, who is the custodian of all cash for the city of Chicago,3 and is required to file an annual report with the City Council on the city’s finances. The current city treasurer is Kurt Summers.
1 Illinois Compiled Statutes, 65 ILCS 5/, Illinois Municipal Code.
2 Office of the City Clerk, Anna M. Valencia, About City Government & the Chicago City Council.
3 Office of the City Treasurer, Kurt Summers, About the Office.
How are Chicago City Council meetings conducted?
City Council meetings follow rules prescribed by the City Council Rules of Order and Procedure.1 The mayor begins the meeting by calling it into order, followed by the city clerk, who calls the roll for all 50 aldermen. City Council meetings require that the mayor be present, along with a majority of aldermen.
A meeting agenda is prepared beforehand and is available for the public to view. The meetings are also open to members of the public, who can raise questions regarding the subject matter of the agenda.
The City Council has 16 standing committees, each focusing on a subject such as education, healthcare, housing, budget operations, public safety, and finance.2 During the meeting, any reports furnished by city departments, the Clerk’s Office, or Mayor’s Office are sent to the appropriate committee. Additionally, the aldermen chairing each standing committee present reports to the City Council along with their recommendations.3
Aldermen can also introduce new proposals at the meetings.
Council meetings take place regularly. Exact dates can be found on this calendar.
1 Office of the City Clerk, Anna M. Valencia, Rules of Order and Procedure of the City Council, City of Chicago (2015-2019).
2 Office of the City Clerk, Anna M. Valencia, Legislative Information Center.
3 Office of the City Clerk, Anna M. Valencia, About City Government & the Chicago City Council.
How does Chicago City Council pass legislation?
In Chicago, the process of creating and enacting laws is laid out in the Illinois Revised Statutes, the Municipal Code of Chicago, and the City Council’s Rules of Order. Legislation can be introduced by an alderman, the mayor, a City Council committee, or a citizen. In order for a citizen to propose legislation, they must go through the City Clerk’s Office. Once documents are fully drafted (normally after they go through several amendments during the legislative process), they are assigned to the specific standing committee to which the legislation relates.
The standing committee then conducts hearings where proposals are introduced and deliberated, after which recommendations are made to the full City Council. If the full City Council approves of the standing committee’s recommendation, the proposed legislation becomes law. The mayor has the discretion to veto the legislation, and the City Council can override that veto with a two-thirds vote.1
1 Office of the City Clerk, Anna M. Valencia, About City Government & the Chicago City Council.