The sticker king

  • Medill News Service
  • January 19, 2006 @ 5:31 PM
He is paid a six-figure salary to process dog license applications, and, until recently, four Chicago police officers protected him on his way to work as the keeper of Chicago's vehicle stickers. Yet as James Laski becomes the second Chicago City Clerk in a row to find himself in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors investigating corruption at City Hall, many Chicagoans are asking the question: Why does this post exist?

Chicago is one of the few major cities in America that elects someone to a fill what is essentially a clerical position. If the structure of other big city governments is any indication, the duties performed by Laski's office could easily be transferred to other city departments.

Laski's office processes applications for dog licenses, vehicle stickers and business licenses. The City Clerk is also the official custodian of city records and processes the paperwork generated by the City Council.

In exchange for supervising all that paperwork, Laski collects a $133,545 taxpayer-funded paycheck. Once a month he gets to sit right below Mayor Daley on the dais in City Council chambers. And come Election Day, his office is always the No. 2 slot on the ballot.

Few other big cities in America give such prominence to the clerk's job. Most major cities -- including New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia -- appoint someone to fill the city clerk's chair. And in each of those cities, tasks such as issuing dog licenses and vehicle stickers are handled by other municipal agencies.

So why not change?

In New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, an agency similar to Chicago's Department of Revenue handles all licensing duties. New York's Department of Transportation and Philadelphia's Parking Authority process vehicle stickers. None of the city clerks in those three cities deal with pet licensing.

Indeed, Philadelphia has joined an increasing number of large cities that have outsourced all of their animal licensing duties to a private company.

A Dallas firm, PetData Inc., now processes all pet license applications for Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, among others. PetData President Chris Richey says that studies show that his company costs municipalities 30 percent to 50 percent less than city employees doing the same task.

"We have lots of cost efficiencies," Richey said. He said that major cities that have outsourced their licensing operations to PetData have actually increased the number of pet licenses issued. "More licenses equal more revenue to spend on city services," Richey said.

Given the success so many other cities have had with dividing the clerk's duties among city departments, why does Chicago assign these roles to its clerk? The simple answer: Because that's how it's always been done.

"That is not a compelling reason," said Laurence Msall, executive director of the Civic Federation of Chicago. Msall said, "the current duties of the clerk could easily be performed by a non-elected official."

"There is just not a persuasive reason that the performance of the current or past clerks has been so exemplary that [the job] could not be performed by other non-elected city officials," Msall said.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, went one step further: Both the clerk and treasurer could be appointive positions.

"Once they're appointed," Simpson said, "there are a lot of things that the city comptroller and the city treasurer overlap on, and some of that could be merged."

As with most things in Chicago, politics would play a major role in the decision about whether to abolish the clerk's office.

Not all political observers, however, believe it is in the public's interest to abolish the post..

"The problem with abolishing it," said Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, "is who [do the duties] go to? The choices are horrible."

According to Stewart, abolishing the clerk's office would either give Mayor Daley or the City Council more power and influence.

The problem is not so much the clerk's office but the people who have held the job.

"Why abolish the office for the sins of the officeholder?" Stewart asked. "Could it use some updating and reform? Sure."