Leven: Zombie Hearings at City Hall
They walk among us. Phantoms of good intentions. Apparitions of legislative action. The undead casualties of local politics... City Council hearings.
The Chicago City Council gathers downtown at least one crowded week a month to discuss changes in the zoning code, tax incentives, appointments, union contracts, and other issues critical to the city and individual wards. No joke, the City Council passes legislation, sometimes important legislation. What it does not do much of — according to its own records — is hold hearings about major issues facing the City of Chicago and its programs. This is a problem because hearings are one of the important ways legislators act as a check on the city’s executive branch. They also can arm legislators with expert testimony from multiple viewpoints, ensuring they have the necessary information to be effective city leaders.
Since January of 2017, the mayor and aldermen have made as many as 70 calls for public hearings and expert testimony ranging from the cost of natural gas in the city to the opioid crisis to protocols for lead testing. These typically are resolutions that call on department heads and officials to appear before the aldermen in order to offer expertise, report on their work, and otherwise account for the city’s programs before the ultimate elected body, the one with authority — in theory at least — to vote down city budgets. However, like an empty candy basket promising treats, a call for a hearing is not the same thing as holding an actual hearing.
For example, a BGA investigation recently found that four years into the city’s experiment with privatized recycling, the system never had been properly evaluated and one company in particular, Waste Management, was marking recycling carts as contaminated at a much higher rate than other companies. A resolution in the City Council calls for a hearing on the city’s recycling program to examine “the state and efficacy of recycling in Chicago.” Time to celebrate? Not quite.
According to the City Council’s online records, only 11 of the 70 calls for hearings actually made it anywhere. Now, this is likely lower than the true number. Ald. Ed Burke is one of the city’s most powerful aldermen and the most frequent requestor of hearings — he made at least 27 requests in 2017-2018. If Ald. Burke wants a hearing, he'll get a hearing. What's more likely is that he got his hearings without having to take resolutions to the full City Council — he bypassed their vote. However, there are no transcripts or videos of committee meetings posted online, so figuring out exactly what hearings were held, and how substantial they were, is practically impossible.
Still, it's safe to say that many of the calls for hearings were, well, unheard. Some topics truly are like the undead. Between 2017 and 2018, there were two calls for hearings about breast cancer health, three calls for hearings about sanitation services at Chicago Public Schools, and, in 2018 alone, two calls for hearings on HIV rates in the city. You get the picture.
Going by past experience, the best we can practically hope for on the recycling resolution is that aldermen will give officials from the Department of Streets and Sanitation a good scolding when they appear in chambers to present their budget on November 1. That’s something, and it might just help fix the problem — but it’s not a hearing focused solely on Chicago’s recycling program. And, for problems centered on agencies outside the city’s direct control, like the sex abuse scandal at Chicago Public Schools, budget hearings will never come.
As the February election approaches, there will be plenty of calls for hearings. When you learn about them, ask yourself, “What is the chance this meeting will ever take place? Will the powers that be allow the issue to be addressed?” If you care about a problem, speak up. Call your alderman. Call the chair of the committee that’s in charge of your hearing. Otherwise, it may be left to linger in that committee, haunting the vaulted ceilings of City Hall like so many other forgotten initiatives.