Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot will have a tough time getting rid of aldermanic prerogative because you “can’t legislate relationships” and she might have to settle for shining the light on it, Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Friday.
Ferguson knows all about the unwritten rule that gives the local alderman virtually iron-fisted control over zoning and permitting in his or her ward.
It’s at the heart of the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal that threatens to bring down former Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and had a role in nearly every other aldermanic conviction over the years.
Ferguson is working in conjunction with federal investigators on the Burke investigation.
But Ferguson also knows that aldermanic prerogative is little more than “Chicago’s unique manifestation of something that is fundamental to how legislative bodies work.”
“You trade votes, logrolling, in a way that makes sure that your constituents’ interests and needs are met through the support of your colleagues. You trade those things,” the inspector general said.
“Aldermanic prerogative is a cultural, relational thing. It’s a courtesy. You cannot legislate relationships of that nature.”
Lightfoot is already facing pushback from some of the City Council’s most senior aldermen, but she’s not backing off from the signature promise of her mayoral campaign.
She plans to issue an executive order on May 20 — inauguration day — ending the tradition that has allowed aldermen to exercise, as she put it, “unchecked power to play Caesar on everything that goes on” in their wards.
“If you’ve got 50 separate fiefdoms that you have to deal with on issues like affordable housing [or] just getting a sign on your building, it makes doing business with the city of Chicago damn near impossible,” she said in an April 5 interview with the Sun-Times.
On Friday, Ferguson urged his friend and former colleague at the U.S. attorney’s office to lower her sights.
She can issue an executive order to “send a message that ‘These are our values,'” he said. But Ferguson said it “won’t be enough.” The best she can really hope for is to shine the line on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, he said.
“Every time somebody reaches out to try to influence that regulatory outcome, that needs to be documented. It needs to be in that licensing file so that it’s fully accountable,” Ferguson said.
“The same thing applies to a lot of what’s going on in the City Council. If you have an interest, you need to declare that interest. It needs to be something that’s in a public database so everyone can go and see it. We need to render that dark space more visible and transparent.”
The new City Council will have at least 11 new aldermen and at least five, possibly six, democratic socialists. There could be as many as 13 newbies, depending on the outcome of two aldermanic runoffs that remain undecided.
Lightfoot will face the formidable task of trying to cobble together a coalition of 26 votes for ethics reforms unpopular with some alderman, and a budget that’s likely to include painful budget cuts and tax increases.
Ferguson predicted a “very, very complicated time” as three basic factions take the measure of the new mayor.
“It would be reasonable to expect that there would be kind of an old guard, sort of waiting to see … whether we’re moving towards a new day. There’s going to be, on the other side, the democratic socialist neophytes who are gonna have to feel their way from being ideologues into actually governing and producing things,” he said.
“And there’s gonna be a large contingent in the middle who are gonna be a combination of transactional from situation to situation [who] are also gonna wait to see which way the wind is blowing as to whether or not they should jump in one side or the other.”
The job of navigating those choppy political waters was made more difficult by the defeat of 36-year veteran Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the inspector general said.
O’Connor was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s even-tempered City Council floor leader.
He ascended to the all-important job of finance committee chairman when Burke was charged with attempted extortion.
Ferguson referred to O’Connor as “sort of the grown-up in the room, the father figure who really carries the institutional knowledge and understanding of how the institution needs to work and evolve over time.” He was a moderate voice who gave the City Council “stability and a center,” the inspector general said.
Without him, the City Council will need to “find a new center,” Ferguson said.
“That center is gonna be different from where it was before. That’s probably a good thing. But getting there is gonna be chaos,” he said.