By William S. Bike
and Peter Winslow
New York has a city charter. Los Angeles does, too. Chicago, rated America’s most corrupt city by a University of Illinois Chicago report, does not—a situation that may contribute to corruption flourishing here.
Ed Bachrach, founder of the Center for Pension Integrity, retired chair and CEO of Bachrach Clothing Inc., and holder of a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is one of the top advocates for Chicago enacting a city charter. Essentially a constitution for the City, a charter would lay down rules that a powerful mayor or a runaway City Council could not change easily—unlike current City ordinances.
Bachrach and colleague Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute co-authored the book The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, which suggests various reforms that would help Chicago, including a city charter.
Hiring a police chief in Chicago, for example, always becomes controversial and political, and a charter could make it less so, Bachrach argued.
In “Los Angeles, it’s in their charter,” he noted. “In Chicago, it’s in an ordinance. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to hire Eddie Johnson, he couldn’t do it because it violated the ordinance. So he went to the City Council and asked them to suspend the ordinance for [a short time] so he could have the council ratify Johnson’s appointment and then put the old law back on the books. You couldn’t do that with a charter.”
The Los Angeles charter, for example, requires recruitment and selection of a police chief by the general manager of the personnel department and Board of Police Commissioners, which provide a ranked list of the candidates to the mayor for appointment.
A charter also could govern concessions, always a lucrative and potentially corrupt aspect of City government, “whether it be from a sidewalk café, all the way up to a parking meter deal, zoning, building inspections,” Bachrach said, noting that, in New York, the charter created a Concession Commission to review financial deals before they even appear in front of the City Council. In Chicago, however, “the mayor gets behind a closed door with NASCAR and cooks up a deal and then shoves it down the City Council’s throat,” Bachrach noted.
‘Freakish’ government structure
Currently, although the mayor is supposed to head the executive branch and the City Council is supposed to constitute the legislative branch of City government, Bachrach noted the mayor engages in “filling of vacancies in the City Council” and “presides over City Council meetings—which is freakish. So these are a lot of the areas where a charter could make a big difference.”
A charter system would increase “deliberative democracy” in the city, Bachrach said. “You get an independent charter commission made up not of City officials, but other people who have expertise in law or governance that come together and create how the City should operate,” Bachrach explained. “And then they present it to voters and voters ratify it, or if they don’t like it, they don’t—so that voters have a say in how the City operates.”
In a Chicago charter, Bachrach would like to “build in the potential for citizen initiative, so that if a group of citizens decided that they wanted a particular charter provision or revision, they could initiate it and they don’t have to be beholden to the City Council or a mayor,” he said.
He noted a charter could create new elected offices charged with oversight, such as an elected chief financial officer and an elected City attorney.
Others working on charter
City Council member Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) and a former City of Chicago inspector general, Joe Ferguson, are working to advocate for a City charter as well.
Sigcho-Lopez said a charter “is needed. We’ve seen, with concern, the issues of the lack of due process, whether it’s Chicago Housing Authority land grabs or the shameful case where the mayor is misusing public resources for political purposes,” referring to allegations that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign tried to get Chicago Public Schools teachers to encourage students to work on her campaign.
“So it is clear that what we have now has not been enough,” Sigcho-Lopez added. “We have seen more and more business as usual and corruption, and we see the consequences of that lack of due process.”
Sigcho-Lopez noted Ferguson has set up a new organization, (re)Chicago (for Re-Imagine Chicago)/The Chicago Governance Project to examine Chicago’s governing system and compare it with those of other cities, including cities with charters.
“We simply cannot continue with business as usual,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “The City is on the wrong course. The concern is that the City does not follow its own legislation. Take the case for instance of the connection between the Proud Boys and the Chicago Police Department. Despite the inspector general’s recommendations and the concerns that this is putting our communities at risk, we still don’t have any changes.”
Current Inspector General Deborah Witzburg issued a report noting the Federal Bureau of Investigation labeled the Proud Boys as an antisemitic White supremacy organization, and the Chicago Police Department conducted an investigation which showed a police officer made “a false statement” about ties to the Proud Boys, yet the City has not fired the officer.
“So it is important that we have the mechanisms for due process, for participatory budgets, for community-driven processes for participation” that a charter would bring, Sigcho-Lopez noted. “It is clear that the political class is unwilling to make changes. So this effort is very important, and I’m fully supportive of it.”
Bachrach also expects opposition from current City officials and unions, as a charter “would be a significant threat to the status quo,” he said.
Ferguson noted that (re)Chicago and Bachrach and Berg are “working at parallel lanes” but not together concerning a charter. He did note that Berg, besides working with Bachrach, “is a founding member of the (re)Chicago board, and I am the founding executive director.”
Ferguson added, “We know Ed’s out there trying to drum up awareness for a charter, and ultimately he’s trying to talk people into moving in the same direction” in favor of a charter.
‘Good idea’ for 21st century
Dick Simpson, professor emeritus at UIC and a former Chicago alderman, likes the idea of a charter.
“While there are some dangers in doing a convention to adopt a City charter, as bad provisions could be put into it in this time of polarization, it is generally a good idea,” Simpson said. “Chicago government has not kept up with the demands of the 21st century. In particular, a new, more participatory form of neighborhood government ought to be added. New York and Los Angeles both have more up-to-date governmental structures and processes. Any new city charter would have to be ratified by a vote of the citizens at a regular election.”
Creating a Chicago city charter also “will require State legislation,” Bachrach said, explaining that he and colleagues have suggested such legislation in their book and elsewhere “for about four years.” They hope to begin discussing the idea with State legislators and the public.
Currently, he is “in the process of developing very legalistic technical materials that are designed for legislators, their staff, and other public policy practitioners,” and working to “develop a series of simplified videos that can explain the charter to the average guy on the street and what the benefits are. Once I have all those materials ready, then I will make them available to anybody advocating for a charter.”
Ferguson noted that Chicago’s governmental system “needs to be reset at a level of constitution,” which would allow citizens to make “change by referendum to provide more balancing of power, checks and balances, transparency, and accountability. These things all exist in other major cities.”
The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities is available at bookstores and from online booksellers.
To reach Bachrach, log on to http://www.pensionintegrity.org/contact/. For (re)Chicago, log on to www.rechicago.org.
Editor’s note: A future issue of Gazette Chicago will include a follow-up with more on (re)Chicago’s views concerning a charter.