World

The city that doesn’t work

William Lowther,James Fleming February 18 1980
World

The city that doesn’t work

William Lowther,James Fleming February 18 1980

The city that doesn’t work

Chicago, touted for decades as "the city that works,” has had difficulty living up to that reputation lately. First came the revelation last November that "unusual” accounting practices—borrowing from one account to pay off others—had brought the school system close to bankruptcy. Then came a transit strike which turned the city’s expressways into what were termed “the world’s largest parking lots," and a trucker's strike which aggravated gas shortages. And last week the administration of Mayor "Janey" Byrne, 45, was given yet another headache. After more than three weeks without pay and facing massive layoffs, the city’s 25,000 teachers went on strike.

While many of the teachers’ grievances had been in the making long before Byrne came on the scene, it was clear that her testy manner (one popular billboard asks: “What made the Mayor Byrne today?") and penchant for meeting the unions headon played their part in the latest crisis, as in its precursors.

After her election last April, there were widespread doubts that the diminutive blonde, given to thick makeup and brash clothes, could follow in the footsteps of the tough and legendary Mayor Richard Daley, known to all and sundry as "Hizzoner.” But

Byrne soon proved her mettle. First to be tamed were the veteran politicians of Daley’s "machine.” As one observed ruefully: "The mayor defanged anyone who threatened her.” A local state legislator who dared to buck Byrne’s orders on a tax vote found his nominal job on the city's payroll as a “sewer inspector”—job padding for legislators is traditional in Chicago to make up for low incomes—had turned into a real one. He was ordered by the commissioner

of sewers to "get out and inspect a sewer” and, when he protested, was told: "I've got my orders.”

Byrne even mixed it with "Hizzoner’s” son Rich Daley, a ward boss. To contest what she perceived as his growing influence, Byrne ran a handpicked candidate against him for the Cooke County state’s attorney office. As well, she fired 20 city workers appointed by Daley—in a bid to erode his power base—and followed up by dismissing Daley himself as "a fly upon my shoulder.”

The mercurial mayor put still more noses out of joint last October when, two weeks after standing beside President Jimmy Carter and praising his performance, she declared her support for Teddy Kennedy. The move not only went against a widespread desire among local Democrats to "wait and see” but resulted in hints from Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt that Chicago’s requests for vital federal transit funds would be reconsidered.

The implied criticism—that her personality is at the root of the city’s problems, which include a $ 101-million deficit—is resisted by Byrne. She says with some justification that years of Band-Aid government under Richard Daley are to blame. But some observers remain unconvinced. As one veteran politician put it: "Byrne’s only been in office a short time, but she's already managed to bump into everybody. That’s quite a trick.”

William Lowther

James Fleming