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Opinion: Automatic Pay Raises Haven't Stopped Chicago's Corruption

The Chicago Skyline seen from Lincoln Park Buildings and Landmarks.
John Walton - EMPICS
PA Images via Getty Images
The Chicago Skyline seen from Lincoln Park Buildings and Landmarks.

This week 45 of the 50 city of Chicago aldermen accepted a 5.5% pay raise to increase the highest-paid among them to an annual salary of $130,000.

The pay raise is automatic, and tied to inflation — which, as we've heard on this very program, is on the rise. This is a reform that prevents aldermen from raising their own salaries. It also frees them from having to defend their pay raises when they run for reelection.

What's made this year's increase controversial is that three aldermen now face criminal charges in federal court, and just since the start of 2019, nine current or former Chicago aldermen have been indicted or investigated for bribery, racketeering and tax fraud.

As a proud Chicagoan, I note the investigated and indicted aldermen are an inclusive group, white, Black and Hispanic, who range all across the political spectrum from centrist Democrat to Democratic Socialist Democrat.

There are reportedly Republicans in Chicago. But they may be as rare as the endangered brush-tailed bettong, though the bettongs may be easier to find, in the Small Mammal-Reptile House at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Editorials and commentators have criticized aldermen for accepting pay increases.

David Greising, head of the Better Government Association, a Chicago nonpartisan investigative group where, I should note, I got my start in journalism by going through a politician's discarded trash, told us, "The city pensions are a bust. The mayor just signed rich contracts with the police and teachers. With offices half-empty, restaurants and theaters dim or dark, economic disparities higher than ever, it's hardly the time for aldermen to give themselves pay hikes ..."

Aldermen are the conduit between Chicagoans and city services. Their days are filled with permit applications, hearings, police meetings and scheduling trash pick-ups. Nights are booked with community groups, and if an alderman goes to the Lincoln Square North Neighbors meeting one night, the Heart of Lincoln Square Neighbors Association still expects to see them the next.

When it snows, the phones in their pockets trill late at night with calls from constituents who expect their streets shoveled and trash hauled by morning.

The hope of many reformers was that increasing aldermanic pay might decrease the thirst of public officials for graft. But since 1973, when many reforms began, some 30 Chicago aldermen have pleaded guilty or been convicted of corruption. Maybe they should try to do something about Chicago's wind.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.