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Emanuel’s last stab at ethics reform stalls

Inside Chicago City Hall

City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle Street. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s last stab at ethics reform ran into a legislative roadblock on Tuesday, but not for the “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” reasons that have stalled previous proposals.

This time, the argument was that Emanuel’s watered-down plan might inadvertently make it easier for developers to ram their projects through without community input, setting the local alderman up for a political fall.

Specifically, aldermen took issue with the 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 original version required an up-or-down vote in six months.

The change is aimed at preventing aldermen from doing what now-deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) 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.

“If you have not had your community process and the developer is allowed to come down here, force you to have a hearing, this could go pretty bad for you in your community, who may be on the other side of the issue,” said Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th).

“It also doesn’t give you the opportunity to mold these ordinances in many cases. You have to mold them to fit your community because it’s not a one-size-fits-all. So, what would happen in my community may not work downtown. There may be all kinds of agreement and changes that have to happen in a zoning ordinance to make it work for your community.”

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) said the mayor’s ordinance “appeared that it was taking away from the community and giving all rights to the developer.”

“I want my community to have the say-so, as opposed to just the developer being able to exclude the community,” she said.

During the 1990s, the Chicago Sun-Times had a series of stories detailing conflicts between Burke’s position as finance chairman and his role as a lawyer. The newspaper revealed Burke used a parliamentary maneuver to change the record of four past votes involving his clients dating as far back as seven years.

Since then, Burke has abstained on a host of matters before his committee because he has dozens of law clients that do business with the city or other agencies of local government.

Emanuel’s plan would have strengthened what’s known as Rule 14.

Committee chairmen who recuse themselves from matters before their committees more than three times in a calendar year would have been forced to resign as chairman or resolve the conflict.

They no longer would be allowed to preside over hearings on a matter, only to then recuse themselves from the final vote without explaining the nature of the conflict.

But Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) took issue with that provision as well because it, too, has been changed. Now, it’s four strikes-and-you’re out.

“If it’s gonna be three strikes and you’re out, let’s make it three strikes and you’re out. Not three strikes and four foul balls to get you out,” Lopez said.

“This was sold to us as being one of the strictest, most aggressive [ethics ordinances]. But now we’re already finding a way to go past three and get to four. I feel that’s what we’re finagling our way to from what I heard two weeks ago.”

Retiring Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said the mayor made a mistake by stopping well short of ending what’s known as aldermanic prerogative — the unwritten policy that allows aldermen to control zoning, licensing and permitting in their wards.

That’s the primary reason affordable housing projects across the city have been stalled by local aldermen, Pawar said.

“No one is saying that market-rate housing projects aren’t getting a fair shake. What a lot of us are saying is that it’s the affordable housing proposals that get shouted down. That never see the light of day. That aldermanic prerogative is used to make sure those deals never happen. That’s what we should be legislating” against, Pawar said.

“I have legislation sitting in committee right now that diminishes aldermanic prerogative dramatically on affordable housing decisions. That’s what we should be talking about. Otherwise for a lot of people, it feels like a giveaway to market-rate developers to further gentrify.”

Emanuel has proposed a seemingly endless string of ethics reforms to turn the page from scandals involving the Hired Truck Program, city hiring and minority contracting that cast a cloud over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

Now, the mayor’s last stab at ethics reform has stalled in the Rules Committee.

In fact, the only ethics ordinance that made it through the committee was Ald. Brendan Reilly’s long-stalled plan to require City Council committee meetings to be broadcast on the internet.

That ordinance nearly stalled because there’s no identifiable funding for it. Reilly salvaged it by allowing it to take effect on September 30, 2019, and only if the money can be found.