Chicago City Council members’ salaries lower than New York, L.A., but clout lies in ability to dole out committee jobs
Following allegations against powerful aldermen Burke and Solis, we took a data-based look at clout
Money talks in politics, but in Chicago, salaries are just one piece of the pie that comprises an alderman’s power. Thanks to a rule allowing council members to accept or reject annual raises in their positions, which are technically considered part time, some of the city’s longest serving aldermen make thousands less than their more inexperienced peers. At the same time, their ability to chair various committees allows them tremendous, little-examined clout, with the executive authority to spend hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars on patronage jobs.
It’s a practice that puts Chicago in contrast with other major cities, a new data analysis by the Center for Illinois Politics shows.
Sixty-five percent of Chicago City Council members earn more than $117,000 annually—but their paychecks are still lower than those of their counterparts in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. At the same time, their pay is higher than those of council members in Houston and Phoenix.
Records from the city’s Office of Management and Budget show that 29 Chicago alderman pull in city salaries of $117,833. Eight more alderman make between $117,156 and $115,476.
The lowest paid alderman is Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), who makes $106,392, followed by Marty Quinn (13th Ward), who makes $108,086, Tom Tunney (44th Ward), who makes $108,528, and Matt O’Shea (19th Ward) who makes $108,552. The roughly $11,500 variance between Reilly and the top earners isn’t due to longevity—in fact, the council’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke (14th Ward), makes less than 42 of his peers, at $108,942 annually. Alderman Pat O’Connor (40th Ward), who has served since 1983, makes $117,883. Alderman Danny Solis (25th Ward), who made headlines last week after the Sun-Times revealed he wore a wire to secretly record conversations with Burke to help federal investigators, makes $115,992 annually, records show.
Since 2006, council members’ salaries have been tied to the Consumer Price Index, which measures the rate of inflation. If the Index increases one year, an alderman can opt to have his or her pay bumped by that percentage. If it decreases, he or she can see their pay cut, but can also opt out of the decrease.
The positions are technically part-time, and many members have outside jobs, a practice that’s been been questioned in the weeks following a federal criminal complaint filed against Burke, an alderman since 1968 who earlier this month was charged in federal court with using his position to “corruptly solicit” business for his property tax law firm, Klafter & Burke.
Chicago aldermen’s average pay of $115,442 ranks behind that of council members in Los Angeles, who make an average of $197,883, New York City, where members earn an average $148,500, and Philadelphia, where members make an average of $134,276, records show. In Houston, an average council member’s salary is $62,983, for the full-time job. In Phoenix, it’s $64,889. In New York, and Los Angeles, however, council members jobs are considered full-time, and are banned from taking in most kinds of outside income.
While it’s not reflected in their salaries, Chicago aldermanic clout often comes in the form of running one of the city’s 17 committees, which comes includes ability to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars for patronage jobs and operational expenses. This isn’t the money spent on council authorized projects, but money spent on making sure phones are answered, agendas are printed and projects are appropriately analyzed as they are presented and considered by the various committees.
The Committee on Finance, long chaired by Burke and now by O’Connor following Burke’s indictment, comes with the largest operational budget, by far, at $2.3 million. Figures from the city’s budget office show that $1.8 million of its operational expenditures this year go toward salaries and wages for finance committee employees. Also of note: A full $45,000 is spent on stationary and office supplies, and another $50,000 on legal fees, and $16,000 is on postage.
The Committee on Workforce Development, chaired by O’Connor, meanwhile, has a $553,672 operational budget—$508,672 of which is made up of salary and personnel costs. And the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards—which Solis resigned from chairing this week—devotes all but $90,000 of its $409,891 operational budget to salaries and personnel costs.
All but $5,000 of the $173,387 budget for Committee on Education and Child Development, which is chaired by Alderman Howard Brookins (21st Ward) goes toward salary and personnel costs, and the Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, chaired by Alderman Carrie Austin (34th Ward) allocated $507,242 of its $558,742 to salaries and personnel. The Committee on Aviation, chaired by Alderman Matt O’Shea (19th Ward) spends all but about $500 on staff salaries and personnel.
All 50 alderman are up for election Feb. 26.
Note: The Center for Illinois Politics is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to providing clear, fact-based information to encourage more Illinoisans to be active in politics. This article has been reviewed by a bipartisan panel of former lawmakers, political analysts and academics to ensure its nonpartisan nature.
Contact Kerry Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Center for Illinois Politics at www.centerforilpolitics.org
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