The Chicago budget is under increasing pressure. City workers have been forced to take furlough days. The city shut down non-essential services three days last year. It’s a time you’d think every budget line was under scrutiny – but Chicago Tonight has found a little-known city office that has a budget and staff, but no actual ongoing duties.
Prior to 1976, there was no mechanism in place to determine who would take power should the mayor of Chicago become incapacitated. But since then, the role of vice mayor has been legally defined. Even though the job has no duties other than to step in in the case of an emergency, the office comes with a budget of more than $100,000 a year.
When Mayor Richard J. Daley suffered a massive heart attack in December of 1976, the man who had been mayor for more than two decades suddenly left behind a power vacuum – and a massive struggle ensued.
“There was even a fight about who should be the interim mayor until the City Council could meet,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at UIC and a former Chicago alderman. “And because of that experience, the state legislature passed legislation creating the post of vice mayor so there would be no confusion, there would be no interruption and that things would work smoothly if the mayor died or resigned.”
The legislation itself is brief. The vice mayor will serve until the City Council elects one of its members acting mayor or until the mayoral term expires, and while serving as the interim mayor, the vice mayor possesses all rights and powers and performs the duties of the mayor.
But what does the vice mayor do the rest of the time, while the mayor is able to perform the duties of the office?
Simpson says as long as the mayor is around, the vice mayor has no real function.
“There are no responsibilities as vice mayor,” Simpson said. “Once in a while they will be allowed to represent the mayor in some ceremonial function, but there’s nothing in the law that gives them any responsibility except to replace the mayor upon his death or resignation.”
That has only happened once in Chicago history since 1976, when in November of 1987, Mayor Harold Washington died in office.
“Because there was this incredible struggle for power, and even before he was officially declared dead on that Wednesday afternoon, there were meetings taking place in City Hall about how to replace him,” said David Orr.
At the time of Washington’s death, Orr – an alderman with a reputation as a reformer – was the city’s vice mayor.
Now the Cook County clerk, Orr is the only vice mayor in history to have served in the function of interim mayor due to the death of a sitting mayor. Orr seconds the notion that the vice mayor doesn’t have much do.
“Remember the vice mayor has no official responsibilities, unless the mayor gives them to you,” Orr said. “By law, all you are is someone there who is ready in case something happens to the mayor.”
Since 1998, the role of vice mayor has been filled by 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone, the eldest and second longest serving alderman on the council.
Stone says as vice mayor his duties include representing Mayor Daley on various occasions as well as greeting visitors and dignitaries.
“I’ll be asked by someone in the mayor’s office to meet with a delegation, for instance, from the old Soviet Union, when they were there,” Stone said. “Or from Japan, or from [other] foreign visitors.”
Vice Mayor Stone admits he doesn’t spend much time performing duties as vice mayor. Still, he says he needs the two staff members he employs with the $114,000 budget appropriation he receives from the city each year – even if it means keeping them busy with other city work. Sometimes, that means working on the Buildings Committee, which he chairs.
“Well, everybody has duties and sometimes those duties may coincide with other duties, but you can’t say: ‘You only work on this,’” Stone said. “You use your staff to do whatever you have to do.”
And while the legislation doesn’t recommend or prohibit the vice mayor from having a staff or budget, it does make it clear that the position does not come with any additional compensation. Even if the vice mayor actually serves as interim mayor.
In 1987, David Orr did have a budget as vice mayor and today believes the office should continue to have a budget and staff but that there must also be accountability.
“The key is that not just the vice mayor, but all committees, there should be reports,” Orr said. “I mean, it should be available to the public. Particularly now, with the web, you can have all sorts of transparency.”
Others like Simpson say in a time of budgetary crisis, when employees are being asked to take furlough days and the city is reducing services, every line item should be scrutinized.
“They’re paying $100,000 or more every year for staff that should not be necessary to the operation of the city,” Simpson said. “There is nothing for the vice mayor to do unless the mayor dies. And at that point the vice mayor would have access to the entire city government. He would be the mayor.”