Aldermen say they are getting frozen out of pot shop zoning process

As Mayor Lightfoot seeks to curtail aldermanic privilege, some City Council members say they don’t have enough input into whether pot stores can open in their wards.

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(Left to right) Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Walter Burnett (27th)

As the battle to open Chicago’s first recreational pot shops heats up, some aldermen claim they’re being frozen out of the process.

Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Walter Burnett (27th) said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s efforts to diminish aldermanic authority have effectively left them on the sidelines as a flood of pot stores move to open on their turf.

“We’re the eyes and ears for the community and the city,” Burnett told the Sun-Times. “If we don’t have control of the process, we’re not able to see the feelings and sentiments of the people and the community that we represent.”

Immediately after taking office, Lightfoot used an executive order to strip aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting matters in their wards.

The mayor, who was elected last year amid a federal corruption investigation that rocked City Hall, said she sought to limit the longstanding practice of aldermanic prerogative as part of ethics reforms. But Lightfoot’s next move to abolish aldermanic prerogative over zoning has been stymied by a defiant City Council, which ultimately would have to back the move.

Aldermen never had prerogative over the Zoning Board of Appeals, which is tasked with doling out the special-use zoning permits pot companies need to open. While aldermen used to be able submit a letter of opposition and have an unfavorable applicant stricken from the ZBA’s agenda, Hopkins isn’t sure how to assert his influence now.

“We’re kind of making up the rules as we go along, it seems,” he said.

The zoning board on Friday granted approval to five prospective dispensaries during a pot-centric meeting, setting in motion a race to win three coveted state licenses. That included MOCA Modern Cannabis’ planned store at 214-232 W. Ohio, which faced opposition from Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and the River North Residents Association.

Following the meeting, Reilly slammed the board for approving MOCA’s application over his objection.

“The Mayor’s appointed ZBA just ignored overwhelming neighborhood & aldermanic opposition to a Cannabis License in River North and they awarded it anyway,” Reilly tweeted. “Enjoy those ‘reforms‘ Chicago! We have an incompetent ZBA full of connected bureaucrats.”

Pat Mullane, a mayoral spokesman, noted that dispensary zoning regulations “follow established ZBA processes allowing aldermen to voice their opinions, objections and concerns on proposed businesses in their wards.”

“Transparency and community engagement have been at the heart of our regulations since day one,” Mullane said.

“[T]hat is why every time an application for a dispensary is filed, aldermen are not only personally notified but each application is posted online for the public,” he added, noting that City Council members are also invited to community meetings prospective dispensaries are required to hold

But Hopkins and Burnett complained that pot companies haven’t asked them to help schedule and host those meetings — as has been customary in the past. In some cases, scheduling issues have left aldermen to send staffers to meetings and choose between events.

Cresco Labs and PharmaCann, a pair of Loop-based firms, held community meetings on Thursday evening in Hopkins’ ward. After noticing the meetings were set for the same time, Hopkins said he asked the companies to reschedule, but “neither of them were willing to blink.”

Hopkins’ is convinced that things would’ve gone differently if his aldermanic authority weren’t “under question.”

“I would have been able to tell one of these two companies, ‘Reschedule this meeting,’” Hopkins said. “And I would have every expectation that they would have complied with that directive.”

Meanwhile, Burnett had to send a staffer to a meeting hosted last month by Los Angeles-based MedMen that he was unable to attend. He’s frustrated he had to rely on that employee to pick up on the nuances and relay the community’s varied concerns.

“It’s terrible. We’re at a disadvantage,” said Burnett, who claimed it’s an alderman’s job to “navigate through all that drama.”

“I’m guesstimating on what happened,” he added.

Getting a gauge of where residents stand is vital as the alderman’s only real power lies in his appeal to the zoning board. However, the winners of Chicago’s “green rush” will ultimately be determined by state regulators.

“It’s a bureaucrat up in the state,” Burnett said. “They’re so far away from the community.

“Not only do the aldermen lose their prerogative, but the city loses its prerogative also.”

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