A Citizen’s Guide to Commemorative Resolutions in the Chicago City Council

A photo the Journal of Proceedings of the Chicago City Council taken by Daniel X. O'Neil.
(Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr)
Part three of a series examining The OpenGov Foundation’s work in Chicago. Also see: part one and part two.

When we started to build a 21st century municipal legislature with the Chicago City Council, we did not begin with software or data.

Instead, we first dove deeply into the history, culture, work products, systems and the processes that exist today. We wanted to walk a mile – or ten – in the shoes of the men and women who make the council run, from the most senior alderman to the newest staffer. Not only do we believe that this is what good partners do, we believe that it would help surface the best possible place to launch this long-term legislative transformation. It’s building with not for.

Launch point? Commemorative resolutions, which officially recognize an outstanding achievement, like a victorious youth sports team, or significant milestone, like turning 100, in the lives of Chicagoans. Commemorative resolutions are the most straight-forward, least complex pieces of legislation drafted, voted upon by the city council and promulgated to the public. These documents are regularly created by all 50 aldermen, the Mayor and the City Clerk. Even better, resolutions contain most components included in more intricate kinds of Chicago policy documents – both process and data-wise – but in an easier fashion for a technologist to transform from paper to the digital world.

It’s a perfect place to start. Our next step was to distill real resolutions down to their very essence, which means answering two fundamental questions: what information is contained in each one of today’s paper-based commemorative resolutions? And what are the distinct steps in the policymaking process behind resolutions? Let’s answer the first one by “tearing apart” a real paper-based resolution to uncover the enormous amount of civic information locked therein, waiting to be turned into modern, structured open data. Numbers 1-9 reference information on the document tracking sheet, while numbers 10-13 reference vital information contained in the legislation itself.

An exmaple of a commemorative resolution cover sheet for the Chicago City Council.

  1. Barcode: These are added to each Chicago City Council paper-based bill for document tracking throughout the policymaking process. The barcode represents the unique document number below, in this case “R2014-641.”
  2. “R”: The letter at the front of the document number indicates what type of legislation it is. In this case, “R” signifies “resolution.”
  3. “2014”: This piece of the unique document number indicates which year the bill was introduced to the council.
  4. “-641”: This piece of the document number is what makes it unique. These numbers are sequentially assigned to legislation in the order in which it was introduced to the council, and are what makes the document number unique. For example, this was the 641st resolution introduced in 2014.
  5. “Meeting Date”: The date of the Chicago City Council meeting during which the legislation was introduced. Note: frequently these commemorative resolutions are adopted on the same day through either the suspension of the City Council’s Rules of Order or when included on the Agreed Calendar.
  6. “Sponsors”: Indicates the elected official, or officials, who authored the bill. In Chicago, all 50 aldermen, the Mayor and the City Clerk may introduce legislation.
  7. “Type”: Indicates the type of legislation, in this case, a resolution.
  8. “Title”: The name of the legislation itself, often providing a brief summary of the bill’s purpose.
  9. “Committee Assignment”: As legislation moves through the council, it is often assigned to a committee of jurisdiction for consideration before moving to the full city council. This bill, however, was not assigned to a committee.
  10. An example of a commemorative resolution in the Chicago City Council.

  11. “Whereas” Clause: Resolutions commonly contain at least one “whereas” or preamble clause, which provide the reasons for which this Chicago citizen, organization or event is being recognized by the city council.
  12. “Be It Resolved” Clause: Every resolution must contain at least one “be it resolved” clause, which stipulates the official action to be taken should the commemorative resolution be adopted by the city council. In this case, the action is simply recognizing great work done by the Smart Chicago collaborative.
  13. “Be It Further Resolved” Clause: Resolutions may stipulate more than one official action to be taken, indicated by the addition of a “be it further resolved” clause. In this case, the action is to create an embossed parchment version of the commemorative resolution and deliver it to Daniel O’Neil of the Smart Chicago collaborative.
  14. Signature: Sponsors and co-sponsors sign the bottom of the paper copies of legislation prior to introduction. The signature is meant to authenticate the policy document and sponsorship, verifying that each elected official listed as a sponsor is, in fact, a sponsor.

Added together, these 13 pieces of information turn a couple of pieces of paper into a real-deal commemorative resolution. By now, you should be able to see that each nugget of printed information is ripe for transformation into far more useful, digital document metadata. But that chapter of the story must wait for a future post.

Now that we understand the information contained in a resolution, we can tee it up to be turned into open data. In the next post, we’ll answer the second question posed above: how does a resolution come to be authored, introduced, considered and passed through the mostly paper-based systems and processes of the Chicago City Council?

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.