Lightfoot to try again to speed up approval of business signs

A month after losing a vote on the issue of aldermanic prerogative — her first City Council defeat — the mayor will try again on legislation shaving up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings.

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Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

Chicago aldermen successfully blocked a measure that would have limited their authority over business permits, signs and awnings in their wards. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot hasn’t given up yet.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot will try again to streamline sign approval one month after suffering her first City Council defeat on the issue of aldermanic prerogative, which has divided her and Chicago aldermen since her first days in office.

At the request of the mayor’s office, License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) has filed a so-called “Rule 41” declaring her intention to discharge from committee at Wednesday’s Council meeting the stalled portion of Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package dealing with sign permits and other items that invade traditional aldermanic turf.

Last month, the City Council voted 25-24 to separate out that portion of the mayor’s kitchen-sink package.

It would shave up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings by ending the long-standing practice of requiring a separate ordinance for each public way permit.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) led his colleagues in the sign rebellion, arguing that aldermen “need to retain a role” in the approval process.

Reilly said Monday he was “disappointed” the Lightfoot administration was “pressing forward, especially after” his meeting late Friday with retiring Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno ended without a deal on “potential compromise language.”

“The Commissioner reiterated that she wanted to continue to work with City Council in good faith to try and find a compromise on the issue. I expressed an interest in doing that as well,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“I was surprised to learn on Monday at 9 a.m. a Rule 41 was filed with the Clerk’s Office. Does that look remotely like ‘negotiating in good faith’ to you?”

Reilly said he is “still interested in pursuing a compromise” that will “get business owners their permits faster,” while preserving City Council’s authority.

“I’ll be encouraging my colleagues to vote NO on the ordinance being called up under Rule 41. If the City Council holds the line on Wednesday, we can get a superior ordinance passed in September. It would be a shame for the City Council to give away its negotiating leverage on this issue and we can avoid that by voting ‘No’ this week,” Reilly wrote.

“The ordinance needs more work and, by rejecting it on Wednesday, we can negotiate a better proposal that serves the business community and helps to protect the quality of life in our wards.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) had joined Reilly in the sign revolt and will join him again in Wednesday’s opposition to the do-over vote.

“If expedition is the goal and having the process be faster, I don’t know of a single alderman who is against that. We’d all like to speed it up. But to suggest that it’s impossible to speed it up without removing our sign-off authority is nonsense,” Hopkins told the Sun-Times.

“There’s got to be a procedural way to include aldermanic sign-off on an expedited process. … They’re trying to work that out right now. If they do, it’ll be a compromise that everyone can support — including the business community. They only want a fast process.”

Escareno said she still hopes to strike a deal before retiring at the end of the month on a way to “help businesses get open faster” and get the signs they need to attract customers.

“Look at all the corridors that have lost so many businesses. If they can get a nice sign — if they can get a little canopy or an awning or even a bench that says, ‘Come on in, I’m open’ — it will definitely help those businesses survive,” Escareno told the Sun-Times.

“This is about helping the businesses open. It’s always been about that. I understand that the aldermen have some concerns. And I try to reassure them … that the process of us trying to work together with the Council and the businesses has always been a staple of our department.”

Asked whether she expects to have the votes, Escareno said: “We’re gonna see. I’m gonna be making calls this week again.”

Mitts said she is not at all certain who will win Wednesday’s vote. The risk is Lightfoot could suffer a second straight defeat on the same thorny issue.

“We’re gonna just let it go and see what happens,” Mitts said.

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