In this week’s Reader, Ben Joravsky and I write that the nine new aldermen elected in 2007 have, as a group, brought little in the way of accountability, independence, or oversight to the City Council–and in fact have helped empower and embolden Mayor Richard M. Daley at a time when he’s undertaking an untested set of plans and programs likely to have repercussions on Chicagoans for decades. 

Our analysis is rooted in the voting records of these aldermen on the most important matters they’ve considered over the last two years. All 11 were pushed hard by Mayor Daley and have potentially enormous impacts on city finances and government operations:

* the creation of the Office of Compliance even though its duties seemed to overlap with the independent Inspector General‘s;

* the city budgets and tax packages for 2008 and 2009, which relied on untested revenue streams and layoffs of front-line city workers;

* another tax hike to bail out the CTA;

* zoning approval to let the private Children’s Museum move into Grant Park;

* the privatization deals for Midway and the parking meters;

* approval of the $86 million purchase of the Michael Reese Hospital campus for use as the 2016 Olympic Village;

* and the repeal of the foie gras ban. (Some readers have questioned our logic for including this last one. Our argument is that the way it was done–by circumventing normal council proceedure–set a new low for the way the council works, or doesn’t, and may have set yet another precedent for mayoral domination of the legislative branch.)

To see a chart with each alderman’s vote on each of these matters, please click here.

As a group, the first-termers voted for the mayor’s initiatives 70 percent of the time; individually, the rates ranged from 27 percent (Sandi Jackson) to 100 percent (Joann Thompson, Willie Cochran).

Aldermen offered plenty of reasons, of course, for voting in favor of some of these initiatives. Some noted that they successfully fought for changes in the budget before agreeing to sign on, and most said they had no choice but to approve the lease deals because the administration threatened to cut more jobs otherwise. They argued that they couldn’t afford to let the CTA melt down, even if it meant approving another tax increase, and that the Michael Reese deal was a winner for the city even if it doesn’t land the Olympics.

Then there’s the argument that these votes on citywide issues simply aren’t the best or most complete ways to measure an alderman’s performance.

“I can tell you very few people, especially in the South Side wards that have long been neglected and lack basic city services, give a good gol dang about that yardstick,” my friend “Maritza” writes at the excellent Marshfield Tattler blog, which documents her experiences in Back of the Yards.

“In fact, I suspect most voters here would prefer their aldermen have a good relationship with City Hall (even a bootlicking one), if it means they can get city services to work and get access to dollars for ward improvements. They also care about whether they ever see their aldermen and whether they feel like their aldermen are paying any attention to local needs. It all comes down to ‘who will get me a garbage can?'”

These are excellent points, especially since most of the first-term aldermen were elected not because their predecessors were doing a rotten job of scrutinizing the budget but because their neighborhoods were falling apart at the same time.

We were tough on Cochran and Toni Foulkes, but Martiza gives them high marks for being responsive to the community. “I saw 48th Street get plowed this winter and we’ve seen the long-awaited sidewalk improvements on the 4800 block of South Marshfield,” she writes in praise of Cochran. “There’s almost always a 20th Ward staffer at the local CAPS beat meeting.”

These are good things, for sure–but they’re not supposed to be special things. They’re supposed to be what 20th Ward citizens pay for with their taxes. Is the bar for an alderman so low that we should praise him or her for doing what’s supposed to be done? Apparently so.

And as I said to Maritza: isn’t it troubling that we can’t also have a legislative body that actually functions as a check and balance on the executive branch? The point here isn’t actually that aldermen should simply say “No” to Daley for the sake of it–it’s that they should say “No” to bad public policy. Taxpayers should be able to get their garbage picked up AND count on their council representatives to speak up or at least ask questions before the mayor sells off city assets, circumvents the democratic process, gives away public park space, and passes budgets that CUT front-line service delivery.

If aldermen aren’t looking out for citizens on these matters, no one will get ample service delivery–even though we’re paying more and more for it.