Chicago City Council chambers
The City Council chambers Credit: Raed Mansour / flickr

In a scene from the documentary Punch 9 for Harold Washington, former alderman Ed Vrdolyak takes the podium during a city council meeting after the late mayor Harold Washington abruptly walked out. Vrdolyak, over the wishes of Washington’s supporters shouting from the chambers, begins assigning chairpersons to the various committees of the council—breaking the long-standing tradition of the mayor doing so. 

Among the grantees were many of Vrdolyak’s own allies on the council, including (the recently indicted) Ed Burke, who was handed the powerful finance committee, Frank Stemberk, who was given rules, and Patrick O’Connor, who got education. Asked by reporters about the new committee chairs, Washington insisted that anything that happened after he quickly adjourned the meeting  “had no standing in law.” 

Except it did. 

As president pro tem, Vrdolyak was able to continue the meeting in the absence of the mayor. He pushed  the council to approve the committee chairs under Rule 36 of the City Council rules of order. But Vrdolyak wasn’t solely driven by his long-neglected duty as an alderperson. 

Along with other white aldermen, Vrdolyak was threatened by a growing Black political force triggered by the election of the first Black mayor of Chicago. Those contentious 1983 City Council meetings would define Washington’s first year in office in what later became known as the “Council Wars.” Ultimately, the mayor got enough votes in the council, thanks to the 1986 special election which brought in a wave of fresh Latino aldermen including Chuy Garcia and Luis Gutiérrez, to allow him to pick his own committee chairs as is tradition. 

There was never again an attempt by the council to appoint their own committee chairs independent of the mayor—that is, until recently.  

Last month, 47th Ward alderperson Matt Martin, a young, Black, progressive who serves as vice-chair of the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, introduced a resolution appointing himself chairperson, a post left vacant by the retirement of longtime 43rd Ward alderperson Michele Smith. 

Matt Martin | 47th Ward Office

It was a bold move despite the increasingly independent shift in the council—and one that clearly made some people upset. 

“There’s a process by which we [pick committee chairs] and the process is the mayor makes the final picks,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told a flurry of reporters during a press conference after last month’s City Council meeting. “I don’t see any reason to break from that long-standing precedent.” 

The ethics committee, which deals primarily with conflicts of interest (nothing the council is short of), was under the rules committee before Mayor Lightfoot made it a full committee at the start of her term. Since then, the committee has reviewed audits from the inspector general’s office, banned former alderpeople from lobbying the city council, and increased fines for ethics violations. 

In the City Council, legislation is introduced and approved by its respective committee before being sent to the full council for a final vote. But if legislation is unpopular or frowned upon by the mayor, it’s often sent to “die” in committee, or never be called to a vote. 

Legislation also grinds to a halt when committees lack leaders. Last month, alderpeople Michael Rodriguez (22nd) and Maria Hadden (49th) introduced an ordinance to propose that the process to release audit reports fall under the discretion of the inspector general instead of the mayor’s legal team, in response to the city slow-walking the release of a report on the botched smokestack implosion in Little Village in April 2020. 

When asked why his ordinance hasn’t been able to pass through committee, Rodriguez put it in simple terms: “There’s no chair.” 

Martin says he’d be the first alderperson in recent history to ask the full council for approval to chair a committee. If selected, he vows to continue fighting for ethics reform. “The ethics committee, because it is ethics and government oversight, plays an indispensable role in ensuring that city departments are operating the ways that we would want them to,” he said. 

His appointment could also set a precedent for other City Council committees with vacancies, like the Committee on Education and Child Development, which hasn’t had a chair since former alderperson Michael Scott Jr.’s resignation in early June. That committee has been under fire for meeting only seven times in the past three years (mostly to make routine school board appointments). 

Fourth ward alderperson Sophia King, who is currently the vice-chair of the education committee, expressed support for Martin’s resolution. 

“In an ideal situation, there would be a conversation about [picking chairpersons],” said King, who is also running for mayor. “And then the City Council would indeed exert its power to make the final decision.” 

Listen to The Ben Joravsky Show

Reader senior writer Ben Joravsky riffs on the day’s stories with his celebrated humor, insight, and honesty, and interviews politicians, activists, journalists and other political know-it-alls.