Should City Council Be a Full-Time Job?

Newly elected aldermen take the oath of office in 2015.

Newly elected aldermen take the oath of office in 2015. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP


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A proposal in Chicago would ban side gigs if they cause ethical conflicts. It’s the latest addition to a national debate about what the salaries and time commitments of city council members should be.

In Chicago, the aldermen on city council take home between $108,000 and $120,000 each year for representing their wards. But even with that salary, some still have side hustles to bring in additional revenue. 

Newly-elected mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to put a stop to that—or at least to income sources that could cause potential conflicts with city business. Her proposal seeks to fulfill a suite of ethical reform promises from her recent campaign to improve the “cynical view [that] city government...responds to and works only for those with political clout.”

Lightfoot has been aggressively pursuing this agenda since her first week in office. Her first official act as mayor was an executive order that banned aldermanic prerogative, a longstanding policy that allowed each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen to block city council measures and other government action in their wards.

But not all aldermen are on board with Lightfoot’s changes. Alderman Ray Lopez said that the focus on prerogative was a mistake. “The true nexus for where a lot of this corruption [begins and] ends is the outside employment by aldermen,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Until we address that, the perception of constant corruption—whether it’s a 50-year incumbent or someone just fresh onto the Council—will never change.”

Alderman Samantha Nugent, who is new to the council this year, supports Lightfoot’s anti-corruption efforts. “It’s crazy to me that we have to legislate things that are so common sense,” she said. “I think it is a sad state of affairs that we even have to spell this out.”

Though Nugent said that serving as alderman is her full-time job, she doesn’t have a problem with other aldermen having side jobs, as long as they don’t use their position on city council to attract personal business. “I see the 39th ward as my client, and outside attachments shouldn’t even come into the question,” she said. “We as aldermen have a duty to place the concerns of our residents first and foremost.”

Lightfoot introduced the ban on outside employment that conflicts with city business along with two other reforms that would tighten oversight on city council after Alderman Ed Burke was indicted on several corruption charges following a two-year federal investigation. (Burke has denied any wrongdoing.)

Lightfoot said that the legislation is designed to address the problems Burke’s indictment surfaced. “This is [the] first of many changes … to make sure that we are having a network of ethics and compliance that drive home the fact that people who are elected officials and appointed officials have to put the peoples’ work first,” she said before the council.

One person excited to see reform happen over the next four years of Lightfoot’s tenure is Dick Simpson, a former two-term alderman who now studies the city council as a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There are a lot of procedural transparency efforts that are needed, such as videotaping committee meetings and creating a clear reporting system for votes,” he said. “Just simple things that would open up city council to greater accountability and citizen participation.”

He said the ban on outside employment is necessary, and makes sense given the current salaries of aldermen. When he was an alderman from 1971 to 1979, the salary on city council was $8,000 (roughly $30,000 in 2019 dollars, about 25% of what alderman make now). “It’s a full-time salary now, and expects full-time effort,” he said. “Maybe some minor positions, like teaching a class once a week, wouldn’t pose a conflict, but jobs at law firms are a real issue.”

Simpson said that once the proposal is brought before the council for a vote, it will likely pass, as he estimates that 40 out of the 50 aldermen would support it. WTTW reported that at least ten aldermen have outside jobs, but Simpson thinks that is a low estimate. He noted that the last cycle of elections in Chicago was defined by a reform vs. experience schism, and when Burke’s raid came to light, those running on reform platforms, especially Lightfoot and several new progressive aldermen, saw major boosts.

Though Simpson supports the ban on conflicting employment, he said that he doesn’t think an outright ban on supplemental income would be a good idea. “There’s certainly a change in the climate of city politics now, so I think people will understand that their aldermanic duty is to serve people,” he said. “Besides, in my experience, you can’t really be a good alderman working less than 60 hours a week.”

Chicago is not unique in reconsidering the structure, pay, or time commitment of its city councilors. New York City in 2016 raised the salaries of council members, and then implemented a ban on any outside income, except from teaching or book sales. Smaller cities have tried this as well. In April, a ballot initiative in Fort Collins, Colorado sought to raise the pay of city council from $10,000 to $57,000 per year, though the measure ultimately failed. The D.C. City Council has also made efforts this session to ban side jobs after a federal probe began into allegations that one council member used his official position to help private clients. 

One of the pioneers of city council reform was Los Angeles, where in 1990, voters tied council members' salaries to those of municipal judges. Pay in the legal field have risen dramatically since then, and as a result, their council members’ salaries are some of the highest in the nation, starting around $185,000. Councilor Marqueece Harris-Dawson said that it’s a good thing that no one on city council can set their own salary.

“The appetite for transparency and clarity here is voracious, so we have some strong firewalls,” he said. “And most members of the council could be making as much, if not more—and be working a lot less—if they were in the private sector. Given the experience and diversity on this council, I think the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. I can point to cities in this region and across the country who try to do their government on the cheap, and I’ll just say this: you get what you pay for.”

Kellen Zale, a professor at the University of Houston who studies city councils, said that there is an inherent conflict when members have to set their own salaries and ethics rules. “To some extent, the Senate and House do this too, but they have the Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and the separation of powers looking over them,” she said. “Councils in charge of setting rules for themselves without those checks often reach decisions that an objective third party would take issue with.”

Zale and Simpson agree that small and large cities need to structure their city councils differently. Simpson suggested that a “city with hundreds of thousands of people versus a suburban place with only a few thousand” should have very different obligations for their council members. In a small town, a plumber/council member can’t just simply abandon their day job, as that person could be the only plumber for 100 miles, Zale noted. “If you placed a ban on outside employment in those places,” she said, “you very well might not get anyone to run.”

In larger cities, though, Zale said that council members essentially act as a board of directors for a multi-million, or multi-billion, dollar municipal corporation. “They might not be making as much as they could in the private sector, but they have decent salaries, so there isn’t any reason for them to take on outside employment,” she said. “It can raise ethical red flags, even if it’s perfectly legitimate.”

Zale didn’t know of any city in the U.S. where city council members are completely banned from outside employment. But she noted that limiting salaries and outside employment isn’t an easy choice, so it isn’t surprising that many cities are hesitant to set hard rules. “If a city did make it council a full-time job and they paid people too much, it could drain resources from the city, and maybe the council would be out of touch,” she said. “But if a city made it full-time and doesn’t pay enough, you would end up with a council full of wealthy people who can afford to take a low salary, and that would negatively impact representation.”

Regardless of whether Chicago’s ban on conflicting outside employment passes, Simpson said that all city councils need clear ethics rules for people to trust them. “Those will have the strongest long-term impact on citizen confidence,” he said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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