Independent Budget Agency Sidetracked in City Council
CITY HALL — A proposed ordinance that would create an independent budget office to advise aldermen has been sidetracked for the time being in the City Council.
The ordinance, introduced last week by lead sponsors Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), has been assigned to the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics under Ald. Richard Mell (33rd).
The ordinance was signed by 22 aldermen, less than a majority of the 50-member council, and does not yet have the support of Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the finance committee, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), head of the budget committee, or Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Mell also has not signed on.
"There's sort of a dispute about which committee it was going to go to," Pawar acknowledged Monday. "While I'd hoped it would have gone to Budget and Carrie Austin's committee, it's going to Chairman Mell's." Pawar added, however, "I have a good relationship with Chairman Mell and Chairman Austin."
The main issue, Pawar said, is the details that need to be worked out, and that can be done as well under Rules as under Budget. "It's a major effort," he added. "You have to kind of look at how it's going to function, how it's going to be funded, its authority."
The idea is based on the independent Congressional Budget Office and a similar agency in New York City government. That agency is large, Pawar said, but the Chicago agency could be smaller and more lean, with a staff of devoted finance wonks working to advise aldermen. As written, the proposed ordinance would create a separate agency assigned to give aldermen "independent and unbiased analysis" on the budget, tax increment financing and "any legislation introduced that proposes the sale or lease of city assets."
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) signed on and cheered the ordinance when it was delivered to the council last week. "We're given a lot of information, and we need staff to do the research, and our staffs are already very limited," he said. "We need a body of experts in finance who can review a proposal ... so we can make sure we're making an informed vote.
"My background happens to be in social work," he added. "I'm not an economist." He said a centralized office would allow all aldermen to draw on its independent expertise.
While the debate is always two-way in budget matters between the Mayor's Office and the City Council, the flow of information has tended to be one-way, coming from the Mayor's Budget Office, but Pawar didn't see an independent agency as undercutting the mayor's power. "I don't see why he should be opposed to this," Pawar said. "It's not about personalities. It's about the push and pull between the legislative branch and the executive branch."
Mell and the Mayor's Office did not return calls for comment.
"What I also want to do is I'm working with Ald. Dowell and Ald. Smith and the Mayor's Office to get all the stakeholders to the table and figure out where we agree and where we disagree. Figure out what works in New York and what doesn't work there," Pawar said.
"Setting up these meetings and getting the conversation going is going to take some time," he added. "But I'm confident that we're going to get something at some point. It's just a matter of working it out."