Book Review: Problems of Governance Plague the City That (Sometimes) Works

Published March 6, 2019

The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, by Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg (Southern Illinois University Press), 2019, 288 pages, ISBN-10: 0809337517, ISBN-13: 978-0809337514; $19.50 on Amazon

It is common knowledge that Chicago is a city in torment with serious problems around every corner.

Political power is in the hands of too few people. The schools have long been unsatisfactory. The teachers appear to care far more about themselves than the students. One of the world’s largest convention centers loses money year after year. Meigs Field, a lakefront airport serving downtown, was closed by mayoral fiat.

The mayor controls all aspects of city government and nearly 100,000 public employees, almost 4 percent of the city’s population, yet the city code spelling out the mayor’s duties is minimal and perfunctory.

The power of entrenched local alderman is unconscionable, continuing decade after decade. The city is not bankrupt but never far from it. Some think it is the crime capital of the world, from Al Capone’s escapades to today’s increasing murder rate. Yet, somehow, the city is not in freefall.

One of the results of these problems is that the city’s population has been dropping for years and Chicago is now is no larger than it was a century ago. Meanwhile, the city of Houston, Texas is growing and will soon displace Chicago as the third-largest city in the United States.

Unrestrained Government

The New Chicago Way, by Ed Bachrach, a retired business CEO and president of the Center for Pension Integrity, and Austin Berg, director of content strategy at the Illinois Policy Institute, endeavors in 234 pages to explain how the city has worked for nearly a century. It also explains the ways in which the city has not worked. It is not a history book, but it contains dozens of fascinating stories of what went wrong time after time.

The list of ill-conceived city actions is long. Controversial proposals large and small are conceived by the mayor in private with vendors and rubberstamped by the city council. The mayor’s control is perpetuated by the fact that he appoints the chief financial officer and the city attorney.

For example, the city gave up millions of dollars of potential revenue by privatizing its parking meters. Beginning in 2005, Mayor Richard M. Daley began selling off city assets for upfront payments to bail the city out of its financial problems. Among those assets were parking meters and city-owned garages. Privatizing public parking not only cost the city a huge stream of income but also ended up requiring the city to pay to park its own vehicles in garages it had sold.

The authors are not opposed to privatization, done correctly. Among their recommendations to improve Chicago’s financial performance, Bachrach and Berg propose transferring some city facilities and properties to the private sector. For example, they recommend selling hotels owned by the city and repurposing money-losing convention halls at McCormick Place, leaving Lakeside Center as the only city-owned convention center.

Comparing Cities

The book could easily be used as a college textbook on city management in a political science department. In one volume, the authors collect information and analysis about the key issues with which Chicago is grappling. It explains them simply and succinctly but comprehensively and in detail.

The book offers some details on how the country’s larger cities have solved some of the same problems Chicago faces, and how some have done just as poorly.

For example, Bachrach and Berg say Indianapolis has a relatively weak city council, allowing one mayor to build a sports arena without first securing a major sports franchise. Another Indianapolis mayor sold a parking concession, following Chicago’s example.

Costly Government Schools

Much of the book focuses on problems with the city’s school system. The government schools’ student population has declined by 13 percent since 2003, but the budget has remained the same. Charter schools have been implemented successfully, with 57,000 students enrolled, out of student population of more than 350,000. Illinois is one of the few states that allow teachers to strike. Among the other 15 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia is in a state that allows strikes.

The city’s greatest problem is unfunded pensions and other benefits for teachers and other unionized employees, say Bachrach and Berg. The city has entered into collective bargaining agreements for compensation and benefits it does not have the money to pay. Chicago taxpayers now owe $41.9 billion for pensions.

Proposing Fundamental Reforms

Bachrach and Berg suggest there is a better future for Chicago if the city’s leaders and voters are willing to invest heavily in new ideas. They lay out specific recommendations for the creation of a new city charter that would address the imbalance between the executive powers of the mayor and the legislative powers of the city council.

Bachrach and Berg say the city council must become completely independent of the mayor. The council must be structured to focus on big-picture, citywide policies and develop its own ability and authority to study issues in support of legislative decision-making.

Unfortunately, charter reform is difficult under Illinois law. Chicago’s city charter dates to 1863. Most of the changes in city government since then have been adopted by the city council through its ordinance-making power. Unlike other major American cities, say the authors, the voters of Chicago cannot initiate, and do not vote on, changes in the city’s government.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.