Should Chicago Cut the Size of its City Council? BGA Analysis Does the Math

City Council Chambers (City of Chicago website)

UPDATE — Jan. 20, 2011: BGA’s Policy & Government Affairs Coordinator Emily Miller discusses the City Council on Outside the Loop Radio.


Should the size of Chicago’s City Council be significantly reduced?

That’s a question being raised with increasing frequency during the Chicago mayoral race as candidates wrestle with new proposals to slash city spending and streamline government operations.

What follows is a Better Government Association analysis, along with a historical perspective, of this important and timely issue.

History of the Size of City Council
Chicago has not always had 50 wards. From 1901 to the 1920s, the council had 70 aldermen representing 35 wards, with two aldermen per ward. The two aldermen served alternating terms, with one of them up for re-election each year.

Since 1920, aldermen have been chosen in elections with a run-off when no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the first round. In 1923 the City was divided into 50 wards, instead of 35, and each of those got their own alderman. Since 1935 Aldermen have served four-year terms.

Size of the City Council
Chicago has one of the country’s largest city councils.

According to the US Census Bureau, Chicago’s population reached 2.8 million in 2009. The City is broken down into 50 districts, or wards, each with its own alderman to represent it in City Council. That gives each alderman roughly 57,000 constituents to represent.

In contrast, New York City has 51 City Council members, and each of those represent over 164,000 constituents. Los Angeles City Council members are only 15 in number, representing over 250,000 constituents each.

A look at the 10 most populous cities in the country reveals a similar finding—each have a higher number than Chicago of constituents represented by each city council seat.

The Cost of the City Council
According to the 2011 budget released by City Hall, the City Council budget for next year will be $24.5 million. Without knowing how other cities calculate their City Hall budgets, it’s hard to make a comparison.

In addition to the $110,000 salary Aldermen receive, they get $176,484 a year to pay for three employees. They also have a $73,280 expense account, which, according to Title 2 of the Municipal Code of Chicago, they are free to use in ways ranging from travel costs to the “payment of miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.”

That’s approximately $350,000 taken up by operating costs for each aldermanic office. This does not include the amount spent on pensions and other benefits.

To see how your Alderman spent his or her expense account, take a look at this Chicago Tribune app. Just enter your address.

Savings from Cuts to the Council
If Chicago reduced the city council’s size in half, from 50 to 25, there would be savings for the city. The city would save $2.7 million in alderman salaries on top of another $4.4 million that would be saved by eliminating the salaries of the three staffers per alderman.

Nonetheless, a reduction in the number of wards would not necessarily lead to the elimination of all ward staff because each ward office would have to double the number of constituents it serves.

But there can certainly be some reduction in duplicative roles when Aldermen staffs are combined.

Streamlining government by eradicating wasteful and inefficient levels of government, and getting rid of redundant or unnecessary positions within the bureaucracy, is the most compelling argument for reducing the size of the city council.

For example, on top of the savings from the elimination of aldermanic and staff salaries, combining wards would lead to a change in the streets and sanitation budget.

Currently, a ward superintendent who receives an average of $90,000 a year runs each ward.  They manage garbage collection, snow removal, and the blue cart recycling program within their wards, and only within their wards.  Even if it would make more sense for a garbage truck to continue its pick up down, say, a one way street, ward boundaries—not common sense or efficiency—dictate the route.

City Council Chambers seating chart from the City of Chicago website.

If the number of wards were cut in half, offices of Ward Superintendents could be combined, again with duplicative positions eliminated. In addition, garbage collection and snow removal procedures would be restructured, allowing the opportunity to have efficiency dictate truck routes instead of ward boundaries.

These changes in operation could reduce the budget by well over $1 million.

Fewer numbers of elected officials could also mean that elections cost less.

According to the City, expenses for elections are shifted from the Cook County to Chicago beginning next year. That will add $5.8 million to the Board of Elections budget, making it $18.8 million for 2011.  With only 25 open slots instead of 50, there would be fewer candidates, fewer petition challenges, and fewer taxpayer dollars spent in the election.

While reducing the size of the City Council won’t solve Chicago’s financial problems, it may be a step in the right direction—a move toward eliminating unnecessary levels of government that cost money but don’t provide a tangible public service.

At the very least, reducing the size of the Chicago City Council is an important topic that should be discussed seriously during this mayoral campaign.

Do you have concerns about the size of Chicago’s City Council? Contact the BGA at 312.427.8330.

Research for this report by Samuel Cuomo, BGA Policy & Government Affairs Department.



Filed under Chicago City Council, Streamlining Government

28 responses to “Should Chicago Cut the Size of its City Council? BGA Analysis Does the Math

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cutting Size of Chicago City Council? BGA Analysis Does the Math | BGA Think Tank --

  2. I am 100% on to eliminate some Aldermanic positions. I wrote about this months ago, too. All of New York has as many as we do and they are much larger! Why does Chicago have so many?

  3. Thank you for taking on this issue. Daley and the council never did. Vote em out!

  4. I couldn’t agree more, the Wards can be divided to match up with the 25 Chicago Police Districts we already have in place.

    John Garrido, running in the 45th, says this of the endorsement by Reform Chicago 2011 of his candidacy, “I am a reform minded candidate. For example; I believe we should not do more with less when it comes to public safety, but I strongly believe we can do more with less Aldermen.

    Now is the perfect opportunity to institute real change in our city government. At one time you needed to call your alderman to get a garbage can; now you just call 311. With the census complete, our elected officials will set out to draw new Ward boundaries. Now is a great time to strongly consider and have hearings on reducing the number of Wards to 25 instead of 50.”

  5. coley

    The best reason for cutting 50 to 25 is that you have half as many people thinking of ways to spend money we dont have. Cutting the amount of “tinkerers” would save millions over 20 years .

  6. Hank Morris

    What most people don’t realize is that the numbers are dictated by an Illinois Law called the Cities and Towns Act. Unless that is amended, all of this dialogue is just “Pie in the Sky.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Hank. Here are some thoughts from BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator Emily Miller:

      Any dialogue about changing the status quo could be called “Pie in the Sky.” But that’s how any reform begins—with thoughtful conversation, like the one you contributed to on this blog. Just because a law exists or is interpreted in one way now does not mean it will be forever.

      Per the current law, you are correct. There is an Illinois law, the Revised Cities and Villages Act of 1941 (65 ILCS 20/21-36) that says Chicago will have 50 wards with roughly equal numbers of constituents in each.

      With the adoption of the Illinois Constitution in 1970, Chicago became a home rule jurisdiction, which gives the city the power “to provide for its officers, their manner of selection and terms of office only as approved by referendum or as otherwise authorized by law.”

      The Constitution goes on to state that “Home rule units may exercise and perform concurrently with the State any power or function of a home rule unit to the extent that the General Assembly by law does not specifically limit the concurrent exercise or specifically declare the State’s exercise to be exclusive.”

      There is an argument to be made (whether it would stand up in court is another issue best addressed by the Office of the Attorney General) that Chicago could exercise its home rule power, and could change the number of wards through a referendum in the City.

      Regardless, if there is a political will and desire within the City to change the number of wards, the reality is that lawmakers in Springfield representing Chicago districts will heed that call. Lawmakers from other municipalities would be hard-pressed to tell Chicago it could not be represented with the number of wards it desires.

      This is not to say that changing the number of wards is the right move for Chicago. That is a debate policy makers will have if there is a real call for change in this area. At the BGA, we hope to add some numbers and facts to that conversation.

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  8. This is a great article. Yes, we need to reduce the council from 50-to-25 but how do we do that with such powerful councilmen who have made their entire living off the City? We need to pass a referendum to change the law on member seats and to impose term limits:

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  10. DMLawyer

    Dumb idea.
    Aldermen are the first and for most citizens, the only point of contact with government. Now you want to make it more difficult for the average joe to have contact with their government by doubling the “case load” on the aldermen that remain after the scale back.

    • I agree that the Alderman’s office is in fact the first point of contact with city government, but aldermanic “case load”? We are talking about Chicago Aldermen here.

      Most do very little and many have full time jobs doing something other than their work as Alderman. A hard working full time Alderman will have no problem working through his/her “case load”.

      Many other large cities around the country have less than half the alderman we do.

  11. Joe P.

    Chicago has too many Aldermen. I have lived in Chicago all my life and I have never had any contact with any of my Aldermen or their Ward offices. Years ago when the world was a bigger tougher place, there may have been a need for so many Aldermen. Not anymore, anyone in need of city services can simply call 311. So my idea is cut the number of Wards in half, 25 wards. How would this be done? We have 25 Police Districts in Chicago, make the Police District boundries the new Ward boundaries. Furthermore, house the Ward Offices in the Police District station houses, that would save the money currently spent to rent  and maintain Ward Offices. There are alot of way to reign in Chicago’s spending. I think this one would be painless to a very large percentage of taxpayers.

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  17. ryan

    The real issue here is why do Chicagoans depend on aldermen as ombudsmen for city services provided by bureaucracies entirely controlled by the mayor. This is the core structure of machine government. It’s dangerous to be a reform alderman, because the mayor will dial back services in your area, and then voters will blame you for what the mayor has done or not done. Meanwhile, as 1 in 50, you don’t have enough power to bring real budget issues to the table. It’s easier to duck and go along with the mayor. This is why we have 50-0 votes for budgets loaded with “hired trucks”.

    The city doesn’t work well. The fact that Chicagoans have to depend on their aldermen to make sure routine city services are provided is a symptom of the sickness, not something that we want to keep.

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  20. L

    With the closing of many police stations, that have been left vacant and are slowly deterioating, why can’t these buildings be used as a central office for Aldermen, thus saving even more money?

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