Oct 4, 2012
A Sun-Times headline from last August may be the crux of the matter: “Rahm hears boos at budget chat.”
Rahm will hear no boos this year.
With virtually no notice from the media, Mayor Emanuel has sharply reduced public participation in the city’s budget process and completely eliminated public information about his budget proposal.
For over 30 years, the city has held open public hearings on the mayor’s proposed budget. Emanuel has ended that, substituting closed sessions with specially-selected groups.
And while Mayor Daley always released his draft budget in August, Emanuel has released nothing – not even the standard update on expenses and revenues for the second quarter of the year.
On Wednesday, a delegation representing dozens of community and labor groups delivered an open letter to Emanuel calling on him to “release a proposed budget immediately and schedule public town hall meetings to ensure that our communities are involved in all steps of [the budgeting] process.”
“The Mayor’s shift away from community participation is not only a dramatic break with precedent, but also directly contradicts his campaign promise to create ‘the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen,’” said Elizabeth Parisian of Stand Up Chicago, one of the groups signing the letter.
“I didn’t think anybody could be more closed-door than Daley, but lo and behold, Rahm’s done it,” said Jerry Morrison of SEIU Local 1. He believes Chicago is now “the only large city in America that has no public process for its budget.”
“Rahm is good on transparency in terms of putting things on the internet,” commented Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman now at UIC. “He’s not so good on community participation and democracy.”
Mayor Harold Washington initiated town hall budget meetings with the 1984 city budget. “It was very, very important to him,” recalls Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary and author of “Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man,” who’s now at Columbia College. “He filled his administration with people who had spent many years working on issues from the outside, banging on the doors of City Hall, and he said, let’s do it right.
“It was important to him that when budgets were being decided, it wasn’t just an inside deal with a few people at the table but was genuinely informed by what people in the neighborhoods said they needed,” Miller said. “And the best way to get that was with open town hall meetings where anybody could ask a question or raise an objection or take issue with any of the proposals.”
It was remarkable to witness: any resident could ask anything and get a concrete, substantive answer from the city’s top decision-makers.
And according to Miller, the feedback from the town halls “was funneled into the actual writing of the budgets.”
Daley continued the town halls, though they were pro-forma: his draft budget was never significantly revised, and instead of getting an answer from the commissioners sitting up front, residents with questions or problems would get to confer with an aide off to the side. Nonetheless, any taxpayer in the city could come and speak his or her mind to the administration, and many did.
“Say this for Daley – he took what came his way,” commented Ben Joravsky.
That all changed with Emanuel’s first budget. The new mayor seemed to prefer a talk-show format. He’s “going Oprah,” as Joravsky put it. “It was the Rahm Emanuel Show,” said Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative.
It was tightly controlled, too. At a town hall at Kennedy King College last August, Emanuel sat on a raised stage with City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, his commissioners filling the first rows of the studio audience. Rahm did most of the talking. Hyman read questions from cards that had been filled out by audience members, who were invited to stand while their question was asked and answered.
That’s where the problems started. Some people weren’t satisfied with the mayoral talking points and tried to engage in a discussion.
“That’s when some of our members got to make some points,” said Patel. “And that’s when Emanuel couldn’t control it. And he can’t deal with that, so he’s not going to have any more hearings.”
“Rahm doesn’t like to be questioned,” said Morrison. “Of course he’s smarter than anybody else. And clearly he decided he’s not going to have any more of that.”
The small private meetings with friendly groups featured this year are an attempt to give the impression of a public process in a setting he controls, said Simpson.
Press notices for the meetings say “B-roll only,” which means no sound. They’re essentially photo ops.
Patel said Grassroots Collaborative is encouraging aldermen to hold their own budget hearings. One problem, of course, is that the budget hasn’t been released yet.
Daley released complete line-item draft budgets every August, and civic groups and unions representing city workers could go over them line by line, job by job, and ward by ward, said Don Wiener, a budget analyst who consults for labor groups.
By the time the City Council held budget hearings in October – a two-week process in which each department head submitted to extensive questioning – aldermen were well-versed in the concerns of their constituents. “There was plenty of opportunity to ask question and suggest changes – and sometime Daley’s people would agree to make changes,” Wiener said.
This year Emanuel is presumably releasing his budget with his October 8 budget address, and the City Council is set to start hearings less than a week later. It reminds Morrison of the notorious parking meter deal, when aldermen were barely given time to read the contract.
Morrison notes Emanuel has scheduled a special council session at the end of October, and fears he’ll try to ram his budget through then, when most attention — and activism — will be focused on the presidential election.
On top of that, Emanuel’s administration has yet to release budget numbers for the second quarter of this year, which ended three months ago. “Rahm wants government to be run like the private sector,” said Wiener. ”Well, any publicly-traded corporation issues an earnings report within four or five weeks after the end of the quarter.”
Since Emanuel discussed increased revenues a week ago, “we know the city has the numbers,” said Wiener. “We know the rating agencies are getting that information, and the financial institutions.” It looks like the Inspector General, which has offered a menu of budget fixes, is in the loop.
“Everyone knows what Chicago’s budget is — except the citizens of Chicago.”