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Chicago Mayor still struggles to tame a rebellious City Council

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Has City Council resistance to the political reform efforts of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington forced ''the city that works'' to become ''a city on hold''? Not yet. Services continue. Hundreds of routine items are voted on without controversy at each City Council meeting. ''It only appears to be a stalemate - the government is actually functioning pretty well,'' says independent Alderman Martin Oberman. And in the mayor's more than five months in office, he has managed to score some reform victories.

Though his cabinet appointments have been slow in coming, and slow in netting City Council approval, none has been blocked. And the courts this fall upheld the mayor's firing of 734 city employees (out of a work force of 41,000) for budget reasons. Numerous studies have long agreed that the city is overstaffed. Mayor Washington, the city's first black mayor, has also limited the size of his campaign contributions from those doing business with the city and has opened up the decisionmaking process in several areas by executive order.

''Many of the things that were wrong with this government - the secrecy, the sweetheart deals, the contracts - were wrong because of the way the executive branch was run,'' notes Mr. Oberman, who has backed several of the mayor's moves so far.

Some political observers credit the mayor's challenge to the City Council majority, led by Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak, with prompting aldermen to take a new interest in policy issues. During the late Richard J. Daley's reign, they say, many aldermen simply rubber-stamped the mayor's decisions.

''There's more concern about broader issues than there used to be,'' says University of Illinois political scientist Michael Preston. ''It slows the process down, but it's also more open to scrutiny than it has been.''

''There's been a real about-face in attitude - some who have been sitting on their hands are asking questions,'' adds Larry Bennett, chairman of DePaul University's political science department.

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