Austin’s four aldermen sponsored more than 900 orders and ordinances since the beginning of 2011, and it appears the majority of that legislation involves ward housekeeping, not citywide policy.
It’s not uncommon for aldermen to spend most their time filing administrative paperwork for their ward rather than authoring policy that impacts all of Chicago, said Dick Simpson, former 44th Ward alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Most aldermen do not introduce citywide legislation,” he said.
About 95 percent of citywide legislation comes from Chicago’s various departments or from the mayor, Simpson said.
One long-time Chicago resident and a follower of city government agrees it’s not surprising Austin aldermen deal with more constituent concerns than substantive policy.
“Part of my guess is most aldermen are interested in their ward and what happens in their ward, not necessarily worrying about the city as a whole,” said Helene Gabelnick, who’s lived in the city for 45 years.
Gabelnick said many residents on the West Side might feel as though they don’t get appropriate services, which puts pressure on the local aldermen to deal with what’s going on in the ward, not what’s happening across the city.
Of the four aldermen, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who was appointed in January 2000 by former Mayor Richard Daley, racked up the most sponsored laws and legislative directives – about 300 – according to data on the city clerk’s website.
Like the other Austin aldermen – Michael Chandler (24th), Jason Ervin (28th) and Deborah Graham (29th) – Mitts signed off on city budget-related policy, redistricting of the city’s wards and amendments to Chicago’s Infrastructure Trust. Mitts and the other aldermen also co-sponsored a handful of citywide ordinances.
All Austin aldermen, except Ervin, voted to pass Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pot ticketing ordinance in June.
Mitts was the author of one ordinance that impacts Chicago residents outside the 37th Ward. That ordinance, passed in April 2011, requires the city to donate its outdated vehicles to two Chicago inmate-reentry organizations, the Safer Foundation, 571 W. Jackson Blvd., and the Community Male Empowerment Project.
Nearly all the other orders and ordinances Mitts sponsored deal with issues in the 37th Ward, like fee-exemptions for non-profits; permits for business awnings and canopies; residential and handicap parking restrictions; tow zones and street signage, among others.
Some specific measures she introduced and passed for the 37th Ward include fee waivers for the Westside Health Authority, an awning for Esquire Unisex Salon, 5106 W. Chicago Ave., and a permit for the 2011 37th Ward Back-to-School Gospel Fest.
Only a few aldermen, such as powerful Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and independent Alds. Bob Fiortetti (2nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd), introduce policy that impacts the entire city, Simpson said.
Burke sponsored more than 500 orders and ordinances since Jan. 13, 2011, the farthest back the clerk’s online legislative system goes.
In December 2010, then-City Clerk Miguel de Valle launched the online Legislative Information Center, which shows various legislation, such as resolutions, ordinances and orders aldermen sponsor.
The Austin aldermen are not “major independent” aldermen, so it’s not a surprise they aren’t authoring much policy that stretches farther than the West Side, Simpson said. Not one of the aldermen returned AustinTalks’ requests for comment.
Ervin, Austin’s newest first-term alderman, sponsored about 252 total orders and ordinances since being elected in February 2011.
He authored three citywide measures, including a “prostitution free zone” ordinance in May 2011, but it’s still in committee. He was also the main sponsor of the Chicago airport worker living wage ordinance introduced in October, which also hasn’t left committee.
The alderman also wanted to modify the powers of the Chicago Police Superintendent in February, but it failed to pass.
Graham, who was appointed by Daley to replace former Ald. Isaac Carothers in March 2010, sponsored the fewest orders and ordinances since the beginning of January, totaling about 186.
She was the main sponsor of two ordinances that impact residents across the city.
Her amendment to the city’s Deleterious Impact Ordinance, which gives more power to residents disrupted by nuisance businesses, passed in January.
Last October, she was also the main sponsor of a law that would require owners of vacant properties close to schools to hire watchmen, but it’s stuck in committee.
Chandler, whose 24th Ward incorporates North Lawndale and a small portion of South Austin, sponsored about 219 orders and ordinances since being reelected to the position in 2011. Chandler represented the ward for three terms before he lost his seat in 2007.
Since being reelected again in 2011, Chandler appears to have not authored one citywide ordinance.
Instead, he filed paperwork for the Taste of North Lawndale Back to School Family Peace Fest for 2011 and a sidewalk café for La Perla Mixteca Restaurant, 2455 S. Kedzie Ave., in Little Village, among others.
It’s not clear how many ordinances Chandler or Mitts sponsored or authored in their previous terms as aldermen, as that information does not exist in any readily available form on the clerk’s site. Mitts and Chandler did not return AustinTalks’ request for those numbers.
Although it’s difficult to track how often aldermen introduced and passed legislation before December 2010, the data available on the clerk’s site is an improvement, Simpson said.
“That’s a great leap forward,” he said.
Simpson, the clerk’s office and various reform groups continue to push for more accessible information so constituents can hold their alderman accountable.
But “that’s an ongoing task,” Simpson said.