Schleicher Comments on Aldermanic Privilege

Aldermanic privilege, a custom dating back to the mid-19th century, exists in some form everywhere, Professor David Schleicher comments in an article on that topic appearing in the Chicago Tribune. 

Aldermanic privilege traditionally gives a city's aldermen near-complete control in their own wards over things like zoning, certain permits, stop signs, and liquor licenses, creating a class of "little mayors," in a sense. The practice vested significant power in the hands of aldermen until the middle of the 20th century, when those powers began to diminish; however, today's aldermen still wield considerable influence.

Schleicher, who has written about how aldermanic privilege affects zoning decisions, says the idea behind legislative privilege is that U.S. representatives, state legislators, and city council members know what's best for their own communities and the people who live in them.

"I think it's the case that most big cities, like Chicago, have too much aldermanic privilege," says Schleicher. "Deferring a little bit to local (representatives) is probably an attractive thing, but doing it too much shortchanges the broader city interests."

Schleicher adds that when privilege amounts to a form of absolute power, "it's a source of corruption."

Aldermanic privilege rule reaches back to 19th century, Chicago Tribune, January 17, 2013. By Hal Dardick.
"The Tribune's 'Neighborhoods for Sale' series in 2008 documented how aldermen raked in millions of dollars in campaign contributions from developers seeking zoning changes. Almost half of 5,700 zoning changes analyzed by the Tribune were approved by council members despite opposition from City Hall's planning staff. In many cases, the zoning changes also met fierce neighborhood opposition.

"Federal authorities have long taken an interest in aldermanic zoning powers. Former Ald. Isaac Carothers, 29th, in June 2010 was sentenced to 28 months in prison after pleading guilty to accepting bribes from a developer whose zoning change he supported. 

"In Chicago, nearly half of the 29 aldermen convicted in the past four decades agreed to exchange zoning, permit or license approvals for cash, campaign contributions or home improvements, according to Tribune records."