"We have a progressive caucus in the council. It's obviously kind of small." —Alderman Scott Waguespack
"We have a progressive caucus in the council. It's obviously kind of small." —Alderman Scott Waguespack Credit: Andrew A. Nelles/Sun-Times (Foulkes), Brian Jackson/Sun-Times (Arena, Sposato, Munoz), Sun-Times

I found myself in the Wells high school auditorium last week eagerly anticipating the big public hearing on the city budget. You know—the annual rite in which the taxpayers get to tell Mayor Emanuel what they think about his plans to spend about $8 billion of their tax dollars.

Only something’s different this year: The mayor didn’t actually attend the meeting. Nor did any of his department heads, unless they were working undercover to report back to the boss on what everyone’s up to.

Welcome to Chicago-style democracy in year two of Mayor Emanuel.

Perhaps I should explain, since he’s not going to. This hearing is different from the dog and pony shows you may have read about or seen snippets of on the evening news. Those performances started with the mayor’s October 10 budget address to the City Council. That was followed by a couple weeks of hearings in the council chambers, where the mayor dispatches his department heads to be grilled by aldermen who peer over their reading glasses and look stern before returning to their usual obedience. It’s an interesting ritual they’ve developed over the years to fool us into thinking they’re vigilant guardians of the public purse.

Then they wait a couple weeks before approving almost everything the mayor asked for.

The public doesn’t participate in the City Council hearings because—well, this is not some small village in New England.

Instead the public gets the opportunity to weigh in at one of three hearings that the mayor holds on different sides of town.

Or used to hold. Mayor Richard M. Daley held three of those suckers a year. He made sure his department heads could hear what the people had to say about how their money was spent, as well as the many different ways they asked the mayor to please kiss their ass.

In 2011, during his first budget process, Mayor Emanuel held one such hearing—a rather raucous event at Kennedy-King College in Englewood.

This year he’s holding none. Instead, he put together a series of private focus groups with carefully selected batches of citizens.

The mayor says it’s more efficient this way. I say he just wants to avoid raucous events. You, the reading public, get to decide what you believe. You just don’t get to weigh in about it at a hearing with the mayor.

In any event, the independent-minded aldermen of Chicago—a coalition that generally runs the gamut from ten to none, depending on the issue—decided they should hold their own public meetings. The idea was that “the budget tells us where we are as a city—we should at least listen to what the citizens have to say,” as Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti put it.

The first hearing was on October 15 at the Copernicus Center on the northwest side. It was attended by roughly 200 people and moderated by the Reader‘s own Mick Dumke, who looked dapper as always in his cardigan sweater (which he swears isn’t a day over 30 years old). The second was held on October 30 at South Shore high school.

The meeting at Wells began with opening remarks from Alderman Scott Waguespack, who’s actually pretty funny in his own dry way. “As many of you know, we have a progressive caucus in the council,” he said. “It’s obviously kind of small.”

Rim shot.

At the front sat the who’s who of aldermanic independence in these early years of the 21st century: Aldermen Waguespack, John Arena (45th), Nick Sposato (36th), Rick Munoz (22nd), Toni Foulkes (15th), and Fioretti (2nd). At least two other aldermen—Leslie Hairston and Roderick Sawyer—planned to attend but had other obligations.

“I represent West Englewood,” Foulkes told the crowd. “I’m a long way from home, but I love to hear what the people of the city have to say.”

With that, the microphone was turned over to the people—about 175 in the crowd, 30 signed up to speak.

And they had plenty to say. Water bills are too high. There aren’t enough police. The city cut the CAPS program, or at least its funding. Too many tax increment financing districts are wasting too much money. The libraries aren’t getting enough funding. And the schools—don’t get people started on what Mayor Emanuel’s doing to the schools.

In short, these are my people. It sounded like a greatest-hits collection of the stuff Mick and I have been writing for years.

At one point, Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) wandered in and took a seat at the podium. Burnett’s not, nor has he ever been, an independent. But as he explained to his colleagues, he graduated from Wells high school and lives just up the road, so why not?

For about 90 minutes, the people made their comments while the aldermen took notes. The big decision the aldermen have is whether they vote no on the mayor’s budget.

Think about it this way: The budget is the mayor’s projection of revenues and expenditures over the next year. If he brings in less money than he spends over the course of the year, he faces a deficit. So to claim the budget is balanced, the mayor can raise taxes or fees, find waste to cut that he somehow didn’t manage to cut the year before, or make rosy projections about the next year’s economy so he doesn’t have to make anyone unhappy.

In the year before he’s up for election, the mayor generally opts for the rosy-projection route, with a few budget-preserving gimmicks thrown in, so the public feels good enough to vote for him again.

The next year, the mayor generally raises taxes and makes cuts, with the hope that the voters will have another three years to get over it.

Sure enough, in last year’s budget, Mayor Emanuel, fresh off his election triumph, jacked up water and sewer fees, closed mental health clinics, fired workers, and made painful library cuts.

If ever there was a time for the city’s aldermen—independent or not—to vote no on a budget it was then. But it was also a ward-remap year. There was no percentage in taking a bold stand against a popular mayor when he was literally redrawing the boundaries that could decide an alderman’s future. So the council unanimously signed off on his budget—cuts and fee hikes and all.

This year? Well, it’s a different story. Several of the aldermen at the hearings—particularly Foulkes, Fioretti, and Sposato—were already punished in the ward remap. There’s no point in remaining loyal to a mayor who moved your supporters into different wards.

On the other hand, there’s not a heck of a lot to complain about in this year’s budget. It resembles an election-year budget with its rosy projections and gimmicky cost-savings promises.

Yes, it continues to drift toward regressive taxes and privatization. And the mayor’s cost-cutting and money-generating schemes look suspect. It’s certainly hard to figure how he’ll save $70 million in health costs from his wellness plan, or how he’ll raise $30 million from speeding tickets when he hasn’t installed the speed cameras.

But is that enough for an alderman to risk the mayor’s wrath with a no vote?

Tough question.