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Brown: City scrambling to find another ‘referendumb’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a 2013 news conference with Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams, left, and Ald. Joe Moore (49th), right. File Photo.| Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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The correct spelling is referendum, but in Chicago we should make it “referendumb” in recognition of how city leaders treat the voters.

I’m referring to the election year game in which the mayor and City Council crowd potentially troublesome referenda off the ballot with questions assured of producing a desired result.

Mayor Richard M. Daley used the trick, and so has Rahm Emanuel, both with the help of obliging aldermanic allies.

They’re at it again this year, although the effort has met some amusing setbacks.


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For the second time in weeks, a group that was supposed to be the beneficiary of a question chosen for inclusion on the November ballot has declined the honor.

The Council’s Rules Committee is scheduled Tuesday to consider a resolution asking voters if the city should establish a policy of not investing city funds in corporations that produce fossil fuels.

But environmental activists who have been pushing for such a divestment policy asked for the question to be withdrawn, saying they were never consulted about a referendum.

And Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who sponsored the divestment referendum, said he decided to “pull the plug,’ although he said his decision was independent of their request.

I told you previously how immigration activists had demanded the Council withdraw a different referendum on their proposal to create a municipal identification for city residents. They argued the city should proceed immediately as a matter of principle instead of waiting on referendum results.

The referendum on fossil fuel divestment was supposed to replace the municipal ID card issue.

Moore’s decision to withdraw his resolution left the Council scrambling for yet another replacement. The Rules Committee agenda includes a vague note explaining that a substitute referendum “regarding infrastructure improvement may be proposed.”

By state law, the City Council is limited to placing three referenda questions before voters in a given election.

The legitimate purpose of the limit is to avoid cluttering an already cumbersome ballot, but by scrounging up three questions of their choosing, aldermen can avoid giving the public a chance to weigh in on difficult issues.

These non-binding referenda are advisory only, but that has never kept city leaders from managing them carefully to keep voters from advancing ideas elected officials don’t like.

The idea they are trying to avoid this year is creation of an elected airport authority that would take away some of the mayor’s power over the management of O’Hare and Midway. The idea is being pushed by the Service Employees International Union.

I’m not a big fan of the airport proposal. We should be reducing layers of government instead of adding more, but it wouldn’t bother me to put the issue before voters for a public debate.

Instead, the City Council won’t even allow the matter to come to a vote in the Rules Committee, despite 27 aldermen having signed as co-sponsors.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a chief sponsor of the airport advisory board referendum, said the effort by Emanuel and his allies goes “beyond gamesmanship.”

“It’s gutting the democratic process,” Waguespack said.

The Rules Committee already has two referendumbs scheduled for the November ballot.

One asks: Should the State of Illinois strengthen penalties for the illegal trafficking of firearms and require background checks for gun dealers and their employees?

The other: Should the State of Illinois provide full and equitable funding for the Chicago Public Schools?

Everyone knows these two questions will be approved overwhelmingly.

The municipal identification card and fossil fuel divestment were arguably more substantive questions to put before voters, but supporters of those proposals didn’t like being caught in the middle.

Moore said he thought his proposal was more meaningful than the typical “referendum on protecting kittens and puppy dogs,” but decided it was unnecessary because the city itself has no fossil fuel investments.

Nothing against kittens and puppy dogs, you understand.

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