A City Charter for Chicago?

July 14, 2023

In recent years there has been renewed interest in developing and implementing a city charter for Chicago. A key theme in Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg’s 2019 book, The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities, is the idea that a city charter could help reform and strengthen the City’s governmental institutions. The 2023 joint series from Crain’s Chicago Business and the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government, “One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Actually Work?,” also prominently discussed reform proposals regarding a city charter. Additionally, former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson founded an organization, (re)Chicago, that advocates for municipal governance reform through a city charter. 

This blog post presents information about local government charters and the current status of charters in Illinois, as well as arguments for and against a charter for the City of Chicago

What is a Local Government Charter?

Municipalities and counties, like all local governments, are legal creations of state government. Through the grant of a charter, state governments can award certain powers to counties and/or cities, including the ability to determine their administrative structure and their tax and fiscal policies. Of the 25 largest cities in the United States, only Indianapolis and Chicago are not governed by a charter, although the State of Indiana does provide charter level direction.

charter is a document that specifies how a local government operates. It can be thought of as a city “constitution.” Charters are usually created by a charter commission that may be authorized by elected officials or a citizen initiative. The charters prepared by a commission are usually subject to approval by the voters.

Today, 31 states allow charter counties. In those states, a total of 255 counties out of 3,049, or 8.7%, have charters. Charter municipalities are permitted in 44 states; 5,305 or 2.4% of the 23,641 cities in the nation possess charters. Illinois currently does not allow counties or municipalities to adopt charters. However, 34 small municipalities still hold charters from the 19th century. 

Chicago received charters from the Illinois General Assembly numerous times throughout its early history. In 1870, however, with the adoption of the State’s new constitution, the legislature stopped granting charters and placed all municipalities under the Cities and Villages Act, a statute that limited the City’s legal and administrative authority. Several unsuccessful efforts were made in the early 20th century to secure a charter for Chicago, including a 1902 effort led by the Civic Federation.

With the approval of the 1970 State Constitution, Chicago became a home rule city. Article VII, section 6 of the 1970 Illinois Constitution permits home rule status for counties and municipalities. Home rule units of government can exercise any power that is not specifically limited by the General Assembly. A total of 209 Illinois municipalities in Illinois, as well as Cook County, currently have home rule powers. However, even with this grant of authority, Chicago is still subject to restrictions under State law and retains a municipal governing structure that was established under a pre-1870 constitution. Creating a city charter would require authorization by the General Assembly.

Arguments for and Against a Chicago Charter

Proponents of a City of Chicago charter argue that it would provide the following benefits:

  • A charter would establish formal rules and procedures to provide transparency and stability to city processes. These could not easily be changed by a mayor or council. 
  • A charter would clarify the powers and responsibilities of the Mayor and City Council, clearly delineating the executive and legislative authority of each. Currently, the executive exercises what can be seen as legislative prerogatives, such as choosing Council committee chairs and presiding over Council meetings.
  • A charter could provide for a formal process for oversight and/or review of major contractual and financial transactions such as asset lease arrangements and financial settlements.
  • Citizen ballot initiatives on policy or structural issues could be permissible under a charter, allowing greater participatory democracy.
  • A charter could specify procedures for the recruitment, selection and confirmation of key administrative officials.
  • A charter could formally provide for establishment of a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) position to manage city operations. Chicago’s Office of Inspector General issued an advisory opinion in March 2023 arguing that the current Chicago Municipal Code requires that the Mayor appoint an administrative officer who would be confirmed by the City Council. However, the Mayor historically has never fulfilled this requirement. Under a charter, this position appointment could be enforced. The CAO would be charged with supervising the management of city departments, boards, commissions and other city agencies.

The principal argument against a city charter is that it is unnecessary because the City of Chicago has functioned well under its current system of government for over 100 years. Opponents of a City Charter would also argue:

  • The City’s current home rule status provides a great deal of freedom for the City to manage its finances and administration. 
  • Any needed structural reforms could be enacted without the development of a charter.
  • In addition, if there are frequent changes or revisions to the charter, this could lead to instability in the functioning of the municipal government.