CITY HALL — Is the new boss same as the old boss with the City Council's Rules Committee?
With the retirement of Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new set of committee assignments, including Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) succeeding Mell as chairman of the Rules Committee.
Harris, previously the person the mayor entrusted with the gavel as president pro tempore when he stepped out of council sessions, is now in charge of the committee that has been described as "where good legislation goes to die."
"I think the first question is whether or not there'll be any change," said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).
Among the proposed ordinances that have been mired in the committee for months are a measure calling for transparency in city privatization deals, submitted by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), a moratorium on new charter schools, submitted by Ald. Matthew O'Shea (19th), and an independent budget office, submitted by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th). All have widespread support in the council.
The Council Budget Office proposal was actually freed up by Emanuel this week in his announcement about the new committee assignments. The Rules Committee will divide duties with the new president pro tempore, Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), creating an estimated $100,000 in savings Emanuel said would go toward funding the office.
Yet there's no word on the other proposals, and Harris did not return calls for comment.
Just this week, however, on the same day Emanuel was announcing the new committee assignments, Fioretti submitted an ordinance calling for any surplus in Tax Increment Finance funds to be redistributed to government agencies. That's meant to provide relief to Chicago Public Schools, which would receive about half of any surplus.
The idea has been championed by government officials, union teachers and grassroots groups, but Emanuel immediately dismissed it as not being a long-term solution to the school budget cuts brought on by the estimated $1 billion districtwide deficit.
Nonetheless, 32 aldermen signed on, and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) called for the proposal to be sent to the Budget Committee, where the chairman is Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), a critic of CPS closings. Waguespack pointed out that the copy published on the city clerk's website says specifically: "To Budget Committee."
The proposed ordinance nonetheless wound up in the Rules Committee, thanks to powerful Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee.
"Burke called for it to go to Finance," said Julia Ellis, director of policy for City Clerk Susana Mendoza. Because the assignment was contested, she added, it went to Rules for a determination.
"I'm disappointed that the council can't take control of its own management," Fioretti said of Emanuel's shuffling committee chairmanships. Fioretti called for the whole committee system to be restructured, starting with the overextended Zoning Committee, which held two marathon sessions this month as it worked through the Wrigley Field renovation and the Main Post Office redevelopment, as well as the usual block-by-block zoning issues.
"Big projects need to be vetted in a different way, and we have a lot of small projects," Fioretti said. He said poor communication about when committees are actually meeting have led to lack of a quorum and low public participation.
"We've got to take our job more seriously," Fioretti said. "The public's gotta participate. Let's have some of these meetings at night."
That idea sounds as if it might wind up before the Rules Committee.