Mayor Lori Lightfoot got the go-ahead Friday to sign emergency contracts valued at up to $1 million without City Council approval but only until the end of next year.
Two days after an avalanche of opposition stalled the mayor’s ordinance, which also allows her to modify existing contracts up to that amount, the council’s Budget Committee approved it by a vote of 19 to 3.
The lopsided vote came after a Dec. 31, 2022, “sunset” date and mandatory quarterly reports were added to appease alderpersons reluctant to relinquish any more power than they already have.
Lightfoot will now have the expanded emergency contracting authority she says she must have to deal with supply chain disruptions and inflationary price increases that threaten to leave the city without the products it needs to protect public safety.
If the crisis that is causing the cost of chemicals used to purify Lake Michigan drinking water and aluminum and steel needed to make stop signs is not abated by the end of next year, Lightfoot will have to return to the City Council and ask for an extension.
The sunset provision was enough to satisfy most alderpersons, but not all. Not even some of the mayor’s staunchest City Council supporters.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), who chairs the Committee on Workforce Development, said alderpersons “have to answer to our constituents.” They can’t do that without oversight.
“If you spend $999,000 on paint because there was an emergency, because we have to paint crosswalks, my constituents are gonna call me. They’re not gonna call you. If you don’t bring it to City Council, I won’t have an answer to that question,” Garza said.
“We are your partners. We are supposed to collaborate. Even if there’s a sunset, that’s a whole year, and we don’t know what tomorrow is gonna bring. All of us have seen that during this pandemic.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Committee on Health and Human Relations, said he was still hesitant and “still on the fence” about granting the expanded emergency contracting authority.
He sought assurances from Chief Procurement Officer Aileen Velasquez that the authorization would be used strictly for “emergencies — not just inconveniences” to avoid competitive bidding.
“It’s like the equivalent of my parents giving me a credit card and saying, ‘Only use this in emergencies,’ and I go out and buy clothes with it. That’s not an emergency. I don’t think oftentimes price fluctuations are emergencies,” Sawyer said.
“I’m still struggling with this idea about giving this authority, and it’s unchecked.”
Velasquez didn’t hesitate in her response. She argued the immediate crisis has to do with a handful of commodities — phosphate, sulfate and chlorine, aluminum and steel — and would almost assuredly be confined to those items.
“I will guarantee that, when I exercise the authority as an emergency, it will be strictly for an emergency and an emergency only. … It will be strictly monitored and revert back as soon as that emergency subsides,” she said.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was not appeased.
“I take very seriously abdicating our responsibility to the people that elected us to act in their best interest and to protect them and their tax dollars,” Hairston said.
“All I hear is people saying, ‘We want to work together, but give us the authority to do it by ourselves.’ I just have a really hard time with that.”
For Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), Velasquez’s argument that taking the time to put the contract for water chemicals out to bid risks leaving the city without the “materials on hand to purify water” was enough.
“While I remain uneasy in some respects about this approval, I think, given my uneasiness about what the potential costs would be if this isn’t approved and the potential impacts on our water and other resources, I’m compelled to support this,” Rodriguez said.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, did a complete about face on the issue.
At first, Ervin likened the dramatic price hikes to suppliers “holding a gun” to the city’s head. He said, “This doesn’t feel good. Nor does it smell good.”
On Friday, two days later, Ervin said, “We do set up guardrails. [But] this is a case where the limits that we have set are not adequate for the situation that we are in currently.”