Hairston skeptical of proposed ordinance mandating attendance-taking at committee hearings

Ald. Leslie Hairston (Herald file photo)

Staff writer

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she would have opposed South Side Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson’s (11th) bill that would have required committee chairmen to call roll to ensure a 50% quorum at meetings, but Thompson withdrew it from consideration once it became clear that not enough aldermen supported its passage.

In back-and-forth with Thompson at the Rules Committee meeting on Monday, Hairston asked about the budgetary impact of his proposal. Thompson responded that meetings held during evenings would be held at City Hall and that there would be little impact on city and aldermanic staffs’ salaried wages.

Asked in a subsequent interview if she would have supported the legislation had it come up for a vote, Hairston replied, “The thing is that it already exists. There’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. It is well within the chair’s right to call a meeting at any time.”

She observed that Robert’s Rules of Order, which regulate committee meetings, allow for a quorum call at any time.

“Let me just say this, that I have always focused on attending. Sometimes the schedule would not permit, or sometimes I was in another committee hearing when there were two committee hearings going on at the same time,” Hairston said. “In order to not have such a great conflict, I removed myself from the eight or nine committees I was assigned to and focused on a smaller amount that was more manageable.”

Opponents had attacked Hairston for her meeting attendance record during her re-election campaign earlier this year. In February, a joint investigation from WBEZ and The Daily Line showed Hairston was one of eight aldermen with at attendance record below 50% of assigned meetings and hearings. Hairston attended 125 of 253 meetings, or 49%.

In her May 26 ward meeting after her narrow victory in the runoff election and the beginning of the new City Council term, Hairston said she accepted membership on the Budget and Government Oversight, Rules, Aviation and Finance committees, having “(taken) into consideration those past criticisms and looking at what we have to do going forward.”

Earlier this fall, she said that she had attended all Budget Committee meetings.

Thompson said he withdrew the ordinance because it would not pass and there were terms within it that could be further discussed. He said he was not sure whether he would push for another vote.

“I think an important part of what we do is not only attend, but to participate in the committee hearings. And that’s where a lot of the work is done here at City Hall,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “We don’t have a lot of floor debates on the City Council floor, but we do have discussion and debate at the committee level here. For me, it was important, and I think it’s important to have very robust discussion. And in order to have that, you have to be here.”

Some committee chairs agree with Thompson’s proposal to have evening meetings, he said, but he noted that aldermen hold regular community meetings on zoning proposals, no matter how small, in evenings with the public.

South Side Ald. Michelle Harris (43rd), who chairs the Rules Committee, said she would convene a meeting of the committee chairmen, Thompson said, to work out a meeting calendar for 2020.

“I think that gives all of us … the certainty to know when those meetings are going to take place, that they don’t overlap, that we’re not going to be running into a situation where I have to go from Finance to Transportation or another meeting,” Thompson said.

“If we have a schedule set, and we know what dates are happening, there’ll be more participation, I do believe, and you’re going to have less conflicts,” he continued. “Because we have to weigh: Is it more important to meet with a group of constituents about an incident or something that happened in the ward, or should I have to run down here for Workforce Development for a mayoral appointment?”

Hairston defended her attendance record during the campaign, saying that bringing development to the ward was effectively a whole other job. She said work involving the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), the proposed Tiger Woods-designed golf course in Jackson and South Shore parks and the long-awaited Local Market supermarket, 7131 S. Jeffery Blvd. due to open Wednesday in South Shore, kept her busy in the ward.

At a January interview with the Herald, Hairston said meeting notices only comes out a few days in advance and often conflicts with her schedule. She said she was missing a Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development meeting to do the interview.

“Sometimes you have to prioritize what gets done, and for me, my ward is the priority,” she explained at the time.

As reported by The Daily Line, “a full house of aldermen” attended the Rules Committee meeting, and many of them were opposed to Thompson’s ordinance.

“On the average, they’re not 20 members present at a Rules Committee meeting. Is this something that you’re saying the public would like to see at 6 o’clock?” Hairston asked Thompson.

Freshman Woodlawn Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) spoke in support of it.

“City Hall belongs to the people,” she said, The Daily Line reported. “We are doing the people’s business.”

Ald. Sophia King’s (4th) office did not reply to a request for comment. As reported by WBEZ, she attended 134 out of 176 meetings from her appointment to the 4th Ward seat in April 2016 through 2018, or 76%. The City Council average from the start of the term in 2015 through 2018 was 65%

Thompson said he did not discuss the ordinance with her, Hairston or Taylor. But he said he would not question Hairston’s commitment, referencing her involvement with OPC planning

“I think she’s working real hard, and it is hard to come back and forth,” he said. “Each alderman decides and makes their own decision, but I know for a fact how committed she is to the City of Chicago and her residents in the 5th Ward.”