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Lightfoot wins emergency spending and contracting authority through pandemic

Aldermanic resistance was so strong, Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) was forced to recess for an hour to give the mayor more time to lobby and appease aldermen and fend off a motion to delay the final vote.

Chicago City Hall
Chicago City Hall.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The City Council’s Budget Committee on Tuesday gave Mayor Lori Lightfoot expanded spending and contracting authority for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, but only after she agreed to water it down to make it less of a mayoral power grab.

“Aldermen always push back. That’s what their job should be,” the mayor said, taking the resistance in stride.

Push back doesn’t quite describe the level of opposition.

Aldermanic resistance was so strong, Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) was forced to recess for an hour to give the mayor more time to lobby and appease aldermen and fend off a motion to delay the final vote.

That’s how reluctant aldermen were to relinquish any more power than Lightfoot has already stripped from them.

When the roll finally was called after nearly four hours of tough questions, the ordinance passed 23 to 10.

To avoid a City Council rebellion in the middle of a pandemic, Lightfoot agreed to put a $1 million limit on the emergency contracting authority and give the City Council’s Budget Committee weekly summaries of emergency spending and contracting activity.

She agreed not to waive the required economic disclosure statement, but gave contractors a 60-day grace period to submit those statements. And most importantly, she agreed to let the extraordinary emergency spending and contracting powers expire on June 30.

That is, unless Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady determines earlier, and in writing, “that the threat to public health posed by COVID-19 has diminished to the point that this ordinance can be safely repealed.”

The mayor also agreed to stipulate that “any and all” monies spent, borrowed or transferred under the ordinance would be used only for the city’s response to COVID-19.

The changes appeased only a handful of aldermen.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council Black Caucus, said his primary concern is making certain “folks in the black community who are taking the brunt of the pain from this ordeal” — with 60 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 — benefit from the avalanche of federal funding coming to Chicago.

If aldermen relinquish their role as a co-equal branch of government — even temporarily — they lose control over those jobs and contracts, Ervin said.

“You can’t let expediency totally wreck us because that way you’d be killing us in two ways: Physically dying and economically dying,” Ervin said, calling the levels of minority contracting to date, particularly at McCormick Place, “problematic.”

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) added: “I don’t want to go with the [status quo only to find out] some months later that minorities got totally shut out.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) suggested the City Council meet more often instead of giving the mayor carte blanche.

“It’s a false notion that, if we give up our fiduciary responsibility, that will help us save lives. I’m really offended by that false choice because we definitely want to save lives,” King said.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said he got a copy of the mayor’s revised ordinance one minute before the committee re-convened.

“I don’t understand why the Council has to cede this power when that’s what we’re elected to do: Be a check and balance on the executive. To play a role in determining the city’s priorities as it relates to this emergency,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“Why do we need to cede this power at all when we have the power to convene meetings? We can all be in our beds and talk about these things.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called Lightfoot’s original version a “major overreach and a step too far” but applauded her as a mayor who “takes time to listen” to “legitimate concerns.”

“The mayor was wise to scale back the original proposal and to remove many of the provisions that would have put the City Council squarely in the trunk of the car,” he said.

If city department heads “abuse these special powers in any way — whether to make decisions impacting our wards without our acknowledgement or using that authority to cut us out of decisions — I will be the first person in line to repeal this ordinance,” he said.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said three values are paramount: transparency amid public distrust; checks and balances to combat corruption; and “saving lives.”

“There is one value that ... grabs my attention more and that’s the value of saving lives,” Cappleman said.

“We’re in a crisis that we have never seen before in our lifetime — ever. Given that, we have to do everything we can to appropriate resources so those lives can be saved.”