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Aldermen take baby steps toward reform

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to salvage his stalled ethics plan before leaving office.

On Monday, the City Council’s Rules Committee met the retiring mayor at least part of the way by taking, what you might call a baby step toward reform.

Aldermen agreed to three relatively minor changes while bracing for more indictments from the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal that threatens to bring down the City Council’s two most powerful aldermen: deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and former Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th).

The first changes would require aldermen who block driveway permits — like Burke allegedly did while demanding legal business from a Burger King franchise owner — to put their objections in writing.

The second change would strengthen what’s known as Rule 14. Committee chairmen who recuse themselves from matters before their committees more than four times in a calendar year would have to resign as chairman or resolve the conflict.

They no longer would be allowed to follow Burke’s lead by presiding over hearings, only to recuse himself from the final vote without explaining the nature of the conflict.

The third change would prohibit campaign contributions from individuals with “matters involving city resources” before the City Council for six months before and after the request is considered.

The Rules Committee once again took no action on the watered-down requirement that the City Council’s Zoning Committee hold a hearing on “zoning map amendments” no more than six months after they’re introduced.

The stalled change is aimed at preventing aldermen from doing what Burke stands accused of doing: That is, working through contacts in multiple city departments to put a brick on a Burger King franchise owner’s project until his demands for legal business were met.

“You’ve got to have time. Six months — sometimes, that’s not enough time to have real dialogue with your community,” said Rules Committee Chairman Ald. Michelle Harris (8th).

“If they come down here and have a process ahead of me, I’ve got trouble back at home where I live.”

Aldermen also took a pass on Emanuel’s plan to prohibit aldermen from “serving as a legal representative or consultant” in areas such as property tax abatement, bankruptcy or environmental cases in which the city “may have an interest and may join as an adverse party.”

Harris was asked why aldermen dared to do nothing on the thorny issue of banning or even limiting outside employment.

“We’re gonna take that up in the new council,” Harris said.

What about aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten rule at the heart of nearly every one of the aldermanic convictions over the years that gives the local aldermen virtual iron-fisted control over zoning and permitting in his or her ward?

“Same thing. Let the new mayor come in and handle it. She’s got some really specific thoughts about it. So, we’re gonna wait for the new mayor to come in,” Harris said.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot feels so strongly about ending aldermanic prerogative, she’s planning to issue an executive order ending it on May 20, the day she is sworn into office.

“I don’t think she would do that,” Harris, who supported Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot, said when asked about the mayor-elect’s plan to abolish aldermanic prerogative by executive order.

“It hasn’t happened yet. So let’s wait and see [when] she gets here. Then, we’ll know what she really wants to do.”

Last month, Emanuel promised to salvage his fifth and final stab at ethics reform and warned aldermen about the perils of doing nothing.

“I’ve been clear with the aldermen that you cannot, in the face of what’s happened over the last two months in the city, stall out on ethics reform. You can’t do it. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for the confidence of the public … in their local government,” he said.

Harris was asked what Monday’s baby step says about the question of whether the City Council is or isn’t ready for reform.

“Fifty percent are ready to go and fifty” percent are not, she said laughing.