If aldermen are to be responsible for constituent services, they need control over ward superintendentsCST Editorial Boardon July 20, 2021 at 11:12 pm

If Chicago wants to keep a City Council with 50 members, it makes sense for the aldermen to appoint ward superintendents in their wards.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), plans to introduce an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to make it clear the job of ward superintendent is a Shakman-exempt position, with hiring and firing controlled by the local alderman. The Shakman decree bans political considerations in city hiring and firing, except for some supervisory positions.

Earlier this month, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said under current law, ward superintendents are covered by the Shakman decree. But that concerned aldermen, who are used to having a say in who their ward superintendent is. They are acutely aware that aldermen who do a bad job of constituent services are most likely to lose elections. The unwritten rule is that if an alderman hates the ward superintendent, then that individual usually gets dumped.

Ward superintendents, who technically are part of the Streets and Sanitation Department, oversee plowing streets, repairing sidewalks, trimming trees and removing graffiti. Ward residents who call 3-1-1 without getting complaints resolved expect to get results from their alderman. Without any direct control over ward superintendents, aldermen fear they won’t be able to resolve constituents’ complaints.

The job of ward superintendent shouldn’t be a political plum, which is an argument for making the job a career position, not a political appointment.

But there is also a case to be made that as long as aldermen are expected to be the ultimate Ald. Fix-It, they should have the authority over the ward superintendent to ensure they can get the job done. The job is critical to the ward, and aldermen should have the ability to complain about superintendents who are not doing a good job.

“It’s a key policy position that, in many ways, can make or break an alderman’s reputation,” Hopkins said. “If you do a good job maintaining your ward and the streets are plowed, the trash is picked up, the trees are trimmed, the graffiti is removed, your voters will likely forgive you for a lot other things that you do that they might not agree with.”

One alderman, for example, told how after he was first elected, it took him six months to get rid of an ineffective ward superintendent. “We could never find this guy,” the alderman said, except for two occasions where the alderman found the superintendent asleep in his truck.

Strict criteria for the job

If aldermen do keep the unfettered ability to appoint ward superintendents, there should be a screening process to prevent abuses, such as when Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) picked her son to be ward superintendent, even though at first he didn’t have a driver’s license and couldn’t drive around the ward to look for problems that needed fixing.

Hopkins’ ordinance, for the first time, sets criteria for the job. The ordinance calls for at least five years of work experience in municipal refuse collection, street cleaning or snow removal operations. Three of those must have been years spent “in a supervisory role related to the responsibilities of the position” or “an equivalent of education, training and experience.” Candidates must also “possess a valid State of Illinois driver’s license.”

Chicago has 50 aldermen who are expected to act as more than just legislators. They’re supposed to make sure trash gets picked up and burnt-out street lights get fixed.

As long as aldermen are expected to pick up the phone and deal with their ward’s problems, they need the tools and authority to get the job done.

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