Last month, Mayor Emanuel caused a stir among Chicago aldermen when he proposed the city switch from a ward-by-ward system of garbage collection to a city-wide collection system based on a grid. We explain the controversy and the deeper governance problem facing the aldermen.
Last month, Mayor Emanuel caused a stir among Chicago aldermen when he proposed the city switch from a ward-by-ward system of garbage collection to a city-wide collection system based on a grid. According to Emanuel, the increased efficiency of the grid system would save the city as much as $60 million each year. Aldermen who criticized the plan, however, argued that the current system -- which treats each individual ward as a distinct garbage collection district -- allows them to ensure that services are effectively developed and issues raised by constituents are adequately addressed.
Waste management would seem like a curious issue to find at the center of a heated political battle. But the controversy surrounding trash pickup actually serves as an ideal window into the way aldermen have traditionally governed their wards -- and how this governance role has become problematic for them in the face of a changing political landscape.
As Jeff Smith and others have pointed out, the current system of garbage collection has its roots in classic Chicago machine politics. In the machine’s heyday, aldermen wielded authoritarian control within their wards over the distribution of city services like trash pickup. This all-encompassing governance authority was used as political leverage to ensure that citizens would cast ballots for the machine’s preferred candidates on election day. As Smith writes, Chicagoans “accepted as given that whether or not your potholes were paved, your garbage timely picked up, or your burned-out streetlights replaced depended on how you or your block voted.”
Under the machine structure, aldermen’s control over ward services was almost entirely de facto -- in other words, their was (and is) no legal basis for many of their myriad powers and influences. Chapter 2-8 of the Municipal Code of Chicago, which deals with “The City Council and Wards of the City”, says little about individual aldermen, aside from setting some restrictions on what they can purchase with municipal funds. Indeed, aldermen are mostly treated throughout the Code as legislators, representing their ward as voting members of the City Council. Nowhere does the document list any explicit powers they have within their wards -- a contrast to Chapter 2-4, where many of the mayor’s specific duties and authorities are outlined in detail. Jurisdiction over most public services and licensing is granted to various city departments and commissions: the Department of Health, the Commission on Animal Care and Control, etc.
Legally, garbage collection was (and is) under the purview of the Department of Streets and Sanitation. Yet machine aldermen worked to pull it under their umbrella of authority. Rather than create a citywide collection system, they designated each ward its own Streets and Sanitation office, its own garbage trucks, and its own superintendent and staff. Trucks were instructed not to cross ward boundaries, no matter how arbitrary (read: politically motivated) those boundaries were. And the Department was instructed to seek aldermanic “input” on who to hire as ward superintendents. Needless to say, these sanitation employees were always individuals loyal to the local alderman and the machine. If the alderman wanted to punish a constituent by stopping her garbage from getting picked up, all it took was one phone call to a friend.
As a result of this de facto system of control over services like garbage pickup, aldermanic power became not only authoritative but also ambiguous. Constituents were not necessarily aware of all the ways aldermen exerted influence over services. Those influences were usually behind the scenes and unclear. Ward residents just learned to assume that all their services were being controlled by their local alderman. And for the most part, they were right.
These days, however, the Chicago political machine is in decline. And though aldermen still have de facto control over some services within their ward, that control is continuously eroding. The Shankman decrees have made politically-motivated appointments more difficult. Public services such as garbage collection are increasingly being centralized and, in some cases, privatized. Where aldermen once ruled the services in their ward, now they often merely serve as ombudsmen, taking residents’ concerns up with the relevant city department or commission.
This leaves aldermen in a precarious position. Though the city mostly no longer operates under a machine model of politics, its citizens still expect all ward services to operate under a machine model of governance. Residents with issues and complaints don’t think to bring them to the departments and agencies that oversee local services -- they bring them to their alderman. And if the aldermen fail to provide those services, they are not protected by the machine at the ballot box. This year, four incumbent aldermen were thrown out of office, and several more heir-apparents lost races for vacated seats. Now, aldermen can be politically punished for failing to deliver the goods -- even if they no longer always have them.
In this view, Alderman Scott Waguespack’s response to the mayor’s grid system proposal was telling. Waguespack, an independent aldermen who beat the remnants of the 32nd Ward machine back in 2007, said he was willing to hear Emanuel out about the proposed reform. But he highlighted the difficulties he and his fellow aldermen increasingly face in a post-machine landscape: “You still get the calls, but you don’t have any control.”
Obviously, that is a source of a frustration for the aldermen themselves. But for their constituents, it may not be such a bad system. Without control over services or protection from political challengers, aldermen may be forced to actually represent the people in their ward -- both to the city departments that oversee services, and legislatively on the city council. If they fail to do so, aldermen may find themselves getting thrown out with the trash.