City Council clears the decks before summer recess

When the 50-member Council meets again in September, it’ll be to begin the possibly contentious process of tackling Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first city budget.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson listens during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson presides over the Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the last one before the August recess.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s a good thing the Chicago City Council takes the month of August off to re-charge before tackling the city budget. The 50 members may need it after Wednesday’s action-packed meeting.

The legislative version of the kitchen sink was emptied before the summer recess with a variety of measures impacting city finances, aesthetics and government oversight:

• Chicago’s inspector general would be limited to two four-year terms — and never again would a sitting mayor be permitted to stall the appointment of a new watchdog after failing to re-appoint the old one.

• Vintage signs at least 30 years old that are a part of Chicago’s “character and nostalgia” were granted a reprieve in five-year permit increments.

• Logan Square’s historic Congress Theater got a new lease on life, with help from a $27 million city subsidy.

• A Lincoln Avenue motel once known as a hot-pillow haven would be converted to “stabilization housing” for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

• And alderpersons piled another $6.5 million onto the mountain of settlements tied to allegations of police abuse while putting the final piece of the puzzle in place to secure an agreement to supply water to the city of Joliet for the next century.

The mountain would have been even higher, had Council members not taken the unusual step of rejecting, by a 26-to-22 vote, a $2 million settlement tied to the 2014 police shooting that killed Darius Cole-Garrit.

Prior to the vote, Ald. Bill Conway (34th), a former assistant state’s attorney, noted that eight of the shots fired by officers who chased Cole-Garrit on foot were “in the front” of the victim’s body, meaning he was “facing” the officers. Conway further noted the Independent Police Review Authority, which preceded COPA, had cleared the officers involved. There was no bodycam video in the case.

Newly-appointed Corporation Counsel Mary Richardson-Lowry later called the rare rejection “democracy in action,” adding: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a discussion about something as important as settlements.”

Ald. Bill Conway (34th) speaks during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023.

Ald. Bill Conway (34th) speaks during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Alderpersons did, however, OK two other police settlements, for $750,000 each. One involved a high-speed police chase resulting in injuries. The second involved Bernard Kersh, who was body-slammed by a police officer with martial arts training after Kersh allegedly licked and spit on the officer. The high-speed chase involved Carlos Yanez Jr., who was critically wounded during the 2021 traffic stop that killed his partner, Ella French.

Filling CPD vacancies, saving the Congress Theater

Before adjourning until September, the Council also:

• Approved an agreement making it easier to fill more than 1,700 Chicago Police Department vacancies with officers who have left CPD in recent years. Under the agreement, “re-hired” officers may return “if they have not been gone for 36 months or have reached age 50.” Rehires will be “placed at their last step prior to resignation on the current salary schedule for sworn personnel.” Officers categorized as “lateral hires” must be under 40. They will be required to complete “at least a 12-month probationary period. They will be placed “in an equivalent step on the current salary schedule.”

• Engaged in a spirited debate about Chicago’s “troubled history” of policing, then signed off on a $4.98 million settlement, all but $112,500 for attorneys’ fees, to resolve a class-action lawsuit that accused Chicago Police officers of making up to 2.5 million unconstitutional “investigatory stops and pat-downs” over the last decade, many of them while enforcing the city’s anti-gang and drug loitering ordinance. The vote was 43 to 6.

“The history of brutality in this city is well-documented,. And we have a long way to go,” Johnson later told reporters.

“If you are suffering under the oppressive conditions of poverty and disinvestment along with the unfortunate interactions that too many communities of color have had with law enforcement—that’s not something that can just simply be repaired overnight.”

• Cleared the $27 million tax-increment-financing subsidy for renovation of the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee, with a companion plan to extend the life of the Fullerton/Milwaukee TIF through 2027. That will give the development team led by Baum Revision time to complete an $87.8 million renovation. The landmark theater has deteriorated quickly after closing a decade ago and is in danger of being demolished.

• Passed the ordinance limiting Chicago’s inspector general to no more than eight years—four years less than Joe Ferguson’s record tenure—with rigid timelines for choosing a replacement and a demand for written explanations if those deadlines are not met.

• Authorized Johnson to acquire the Diplomat Motel, 5230 N. Lincoln Ave., for $2.9 million and turn its 40 rooms into supportive housing, with wrap-around social services on site. In March 2020, the Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave., was one of four Chicago hotels owned by Oxford Capital Group that agreed to rent rooms to isolate patients who tested positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed to someone who tested positive. That’s the model the Johnson administration wants to duplicate by acquiring the Diplomat in an experiment that could ultimately be replicated in all 50 wards.

• OK’d the mayor’s plan to protect Chicago’s most iconic “vintage signs” — including the Grace’s Furniture sign Logan Square. The change in the city code would allow historic signs to receive a new “vintage” classification provided they are well-maintained, at least 30 years old and accompanied by detailed information about the history of the sign. The permit must be renewed every five years. Signs hanging over the public way still require Council approval. If the company changes its name, the vintage sign would have to include the “same stylization of letters.”

• Approved a lease securing a 100-year deal to supply Lake Michigan water to the city of Joliet. Chicago will get $30 million in annual revenue, beginning in 2030. The lease agreement, with the Chicago Park District, will transfer a portion of Durkin Park in the South Side’s 18th Ward for construction of the pumping infrastructure needed to supply the water. Chicago taxpayers will provide $65 million in up-front financing for the Joliet infrastructure, but will be reimbursed over the course of the agreement through higher water fees.

• Took a timid first step toward mandating municipal snow removal from Chicago sidewalks, a potentially politically-perilous promise for the expectation that it creates. The ordinance championed by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) gives a handful of city departments 60 days to create a working group to study sidewalk snow removal and determine where and how to test the new service, the cost and how to pay for the pilot.

Shoveling sidewalks ‘isn’t feasible,’ Sposato says

The recommendations — including whether to hire private contractors or have city employees do the work — must be delivered “no later than May 31, 2024.” The goal is to launch the pilot program by January 2025.

Veteran Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) opposed the move, fearing the inevitable backlash.

“I don’t want to get those phone calls saying, `When are you gonna plow my sidewalk? ... When I get those calls, I’m gonna forward them to your office,” Beale told Villegas. Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) added, “The financial ramifications will be monumental. It’s gonna be a disaster.”

Johnson countered, “What’s the cost to the city of Chicago when seniors and individuals with disabilities can’t move around...because the season has changed? I need people moving around year-round.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) speaks during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) said having the city shovel sidewalks “isn’t feasible.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

• Took a unanimous voice vote to approve Johnson’s appointment of Richardson-Lowry as corporation counsel. She’s the first Black woman to serve as the city’s top attorney and the third alum from Richard M. Daley’s administration to join the Johnson administration. During her confirmation hearing this week, Richardson-Lowry told alderpersons she does not believe the Council needs its own legal counsel. Though the Law Department has 37 vacancies, Richardson-Lowry said it has “extraordinary talent” that alderpersons must have access to. “Creating two groups of lawyers going at each other will not solve problems. It’ll create more,” she said.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Villegas introduced an ordinance to make permanent the now-expired Guaranteed Minimum Income Pilot he championed with an annual appropriation “not less than $30 million.” Johnson said numbers for the city and county pilots are “coming back quite favorably,” with the “vast majority of recipients” being women of color.

An ordinance giving restaurants two years to phase out the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers was introduced, but sent to the Rules Committee at Beale’s request, citing business opposition. He called it a “job killer.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), the mayor’s floor leader, reiterated that negotiations continue aimed at giving Chicago restaurants longer than two years to phase out the lower wage. Mayoral ally Jessie Fuentes (26th) said she was open to four years, but no more.

Johnson wouldn’t say how long he was willing to wait, only that, “everything we can do to protect workers makes our economy stronger.”

The mayor also scheduled subject matter hearings next week on two of his most important progressive promises: the “Bring Chicago Home” ordinance raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to combat homelessness and “Treatment—Not Trauma” to honor his campaign promises to re-open shuttered mental health clinics and expand non-police response to mental health emergencies.

With the governor and legislative leaders dead-set against the tax increase, Johnson will likely have no choice but to ask the City Council to put a binding referendum on the Chicago ballot.

“As an organizer, I’m always committed to taking the case to the voters,” he said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) introduced ordinances that would ban the sale of fur products in Chicago, legalize video gaming and outlaw so-called “sweepstakes” machines that have proliferated in the city.

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