Fighting Corruption in Chicago Requires Fundamental Systemic Reforms to City Government

Chicago, a city with an economy larger than that of countries like Thailand and Belgium, has won the title of the most corrupt city in America, with a total of 1,750 public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2018. (Los Angeles came in second with 1,547 convictions, while New York City (Manhattan) had 1,360.) There are numerous reasons why corruption is so pervasive in Chicago, many of which have roots in the city’s complicated history. But one particular institutional feature of Chicago city government appears to play a particularly important role: the system of so-called “aldermanic privilege” that allows local municipal representatives, known as aldermen, to operate their districts like discrete fiefdoms.

Chicago is divided into 50 political wards, each of which elects an alderman to represent the ward in City Council. Chicago differs from most other cities because an alderman can control virtually every aspect of zoning, licenses, and permitting within his or her ward. If, for example, a business needs a permit to hang a sign over its store or wants a license to sell liquor, the local alderman has to approve it. The aldermen also have broad authority to determine if a city block should be zoned as residential, commercial, or manufacturing, and to change zoning designations about how big a house can be, how many patrons a restaurant can serve, and what types of commercial properties are permitted. These powers, known collectively as aldermanic privilege, are not written anywhere in the city’s charter or ordinances. Rather, aldermanic privilege is a byproduct of Chicago’s longstanding political culture of deference and reciprocity: aldermen tacitly agree not to interfere with each other’s decisions, and the mayor cedes control of local wards to aldermen in exchange for the aldermen giving the mayor a wide berth on city-wide decisions. Some defend this system on the grounds that each alderman knows what is best for his or her own ward. And to be sure, aldermanic privilege can be used for good. But this system also fosters corruption, with alderman frequently using their power to extort bribes from local businesses. A particularly egregious illustration of such abuses came to light last year, when federal prosecutors charged Edward Burke, one of Chicago’s longest serving and most powerful alderman, with extortion and related offenses in connection with Burke’s alleged shakedown of local businesses in exchange for licensing and building permits. But Burke is hardly unique.

What can the city do about this problem? Last year, in part in reaction to the Burke Scandal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot successfully ran for mayor on a campaign that called for fighting corruption and ending aldermanic privilege. Mayor Lightfoot followed through shortly after her inauguration, issuing an executive order that stripped aldermen of their authority over permits and licensing decisions, and instructing city departments to stop deferring to aldermen’s wishes. The City Council also passed Mayor Lightfoot’s ethics package, which, among other things, gave Chicago’s inspector general greater powers to investigate aldermen, and banned alderman from having any outside employment that poses a conflict of interest.

This is a good start, but it’s insufficient to root out aldermanic corruption. Succeeding in that endeavor requires more fundamental reforms to Chicago city government. Two such reforms, individually or in combination, might help achieve this end:

  • First, the city could and should deprive aldermen of their de facto unilateral power over zoning decisions. As noted above, Mayor Lightfoot has already stripped aldermen of their authority over licenses and permits, but influence over zoning remains the most important and dangerous aspect of aldermanic privilege. Dealing with this problem is particularly challenging, because any zoning reform will likely require getting approval from City Council, which is tantamount to asking aldermen to voluntarily legislate away their power. Moreover, Mayor Lightfoot is understandably reluctant to alienate her allies in City Council. Yet meaningful reform to limit aldermanic privilege must eventually reign in their zoning powers. The City Council, which currently votes on zoning amendments, is unlikely to check aldermen’s authority because of the culture of reciprocity described above. Therefore, zoning powers should be transferred from the City Council to the existing Zoning Ordinance Administration and Zoning Board of Appeal, which are both under the mayor’s office. The Administration is currently not the final decision-maker on zoning amendments; the reform proposed here would give the Administration sole discretion to amend zoning ordinances, with decisions based on a clear and objective set of rules and standards. Any decision the Administration makes would then be appealable to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Furthermore, this reform should be accompanied by two safeguards to ensure that aldermen remain involved in the zoning amendment process. The first one already exists: the Board is composed of members selected by the Mayor and approved by the City Council. To maximize aldermen involvement, I additionally propose that each alderman be allowed to participate in a hearing concerning his or her ward and to vote, along with the other Board members, on whether to approve or deny a zoning amendment. Under this system, alderman would retain some say in zoning decisions within their wards, but would not have the absolute power over zoning that currently enables them to extort bribes from businesses.
  • Second, the city should increase the number of aldermen per ward. The current system, in which each ward is represented by a single alderman, gives that alderman too much power over his or her ward. Converting wards to multi-member districts would preserve a system in which local representatives could advocate for their ward in City Council, but would avoid the excessive concentration of power in one person. Under this system, aldermen might retain a form of aldermanic privilege collectively – for example, businesses might need to get approval from a group of three or five aldermen, who all represent the same ward, by majority or unanimous vote. Corruption in such a system is still possible, but with more people to bribe, corruption would be both more expensive and riskier, and hence less likely. To be sure, this reform would significantly increase the number of aldermen in City Council, raising legitimate concerns that the Council could grow so large as to become unwieldy. But this problem could be addressed by consolidating some of the wards so as to reduce the number of districts in the city.

Aldermen are elected to be the voices of their wards, and any proposal must not render them unable to advocate effectively on behalf of their constituents. But that does not mean that a single alderman should be the sole voice over how his or her ward develops. That sort of arrangement, as history has shown, is a recipe for rampant corruption. The two reforms described above would strike a better balance, limiting aldermen’s influence while not eliminating it entirely. Of course, it will be difficult to get aldermen to surrender their power, especially given how entrenched aldermanic privilege is within the city’s political culture. But without drastic measures of the sort sketched above, it’s unlikely that Chicago will ever be able to shed its bad reputation as America’s most corrupt city.

7 thoughts on “Fighting Corruption in Chicago Requires Fundamental Systemic Reforms to City Government

  1. Thanks for this very informative and thought-provoking post! You present some potentially powerful, albeit daunting, solutions. Regarding the democratic accountability point–is there any room for individuals/civil society organizations to exert reform pressure or is this a war best waged between Lightfoot and the aldermen?

    • Thank you for the comment! So there are some lawsuits going on right now in Chicago where organizations are trying to exert pressure for reform on aldermanic privilege – the Shriver Center on Poverty Law filed a complaint against the City of Chicago in 2018 asserting how the privilege created discriminatory housing and stifled affordable housing in Chicago. I think these lawsuits may be beneficial in making sure this topic stays relevant in the public, but aldermanic privilege and the criticisms levied against it have been around for a long time and so far nothing really has changed. I think true reform will have to start with the City Council and Mayor Lightfoot, but the lawsuits may put pressure on Mayor Lightfoot to make good on her campaign promises.

  2. Really enjoyed this look into Chicago politics. I’m curious about the political climate around reforming aldermanic privilege. You say that City Council is unlikely to check the authority of aldermen because of the culture of reciprocity, but last year City Council voted unanimously to pass Mayor Lightfoot’s ethics package, which did just that. Is there a reason that additional reforms, such as zoning reform, wouldn’t garner the same kind of support?

    • An interesting point! Approaching this with little background, it makes me wonder if: a. the ethics package is functionally flawed and bears little impact on aldermen, or b. if public pressure on passing an ethics package was such that aldermen would be forced to vote favorably. It’ll be interesting to see if the ethics package is a gateway into establishing further reforms as elaborated by this post, or if public is sated by the anticorruption efforts thus far.

      • Thanks for the comments Zach and Jaylia! I think the distinction here has to do with the executive order signed by Mayor Lightfoot that specifically tried to strip some powers away from the aldermen versus the ethics package which doesn’t really attack the powers the aldermen hold, but overall may make it a bit harder to have conflicts or get away with corruption. I am not entirely sure about how the politics play out, but I can imagine aldermen passing the ethics package as a means to appease the Mayor and, to Jaylia’s point, have the public look favorably upon them.

        However, I foresee the zoning reforms to pose a greater problem getting it passed by the City Council. For starters, it’s not like the ethics package which tries to restrain aldermen behavior through external measures. I believe any effective zoning reform would have to directly target and strip the powers and reform the culture of aldermanic privilege that the City Council holds internally.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post. I agree with your conclusion that changes must be made to curb potential abuse of aldermanic privilege. However, I have reservations to your recommendations that zoning power should be transferred from the City Council to the existing Zoning Ordinance Administration and Zoning Board of Appeal. If this occurs, I can imagine a scenario where the length of time to receive approvals for zoning would be greatly lengthened because of the need to have multiple members vote. I would love to know whether you foresee a greater length of time in obtaining and issuing zoning from your recommendations and if so, how can we mitigate such occurrence?

    • Thanks for the comment Ubong! I don’t particularly see a problem with having a longer wait time for zoning approvals, especially since I believe the pros outweigh the cons. What consumers/contractors/etc. are getting in exchange for a longer wait time is a more thorough consideration process with a set of clear and objective zoning standards. The standards would allow applicants to have a better sense of when an application may succeed or fail and provide guidelines on how to best apply. Furthermore, the outcome of the application will no longer be based on the whims of one individual. Lastly, I think it’s beneficial to have a thorough process, especially since zoning changes shouldn’t be done lightly because of the possible ramifications to the surrounding area.

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