A seemingly innocuous ordinance expanding protections for hospital quiet zones stalled Thursday amid concern that it would set a dangerous precedent by weakening the powers of Chicago City Council members and eliminating their cherished aldermanic prerogative.
For years, Lurie Children’s and Northwestern Memorial Hospitals have been protected by a so-called quiet zone to avoid disturbing patients.
Local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) simply wanted the council’s Committee on Public Safety to create sign requirements and expand the definition of excessive noise to include “use of a bullhorn or loud and raucous electronic amplification” or use of “an object … struck manually or with a stick or similar item to produce a sharp percussive noise.”
That amounts to a back-door ban on street musicians, whom Hopkins and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) have tried and failed to silence.
But the quiet zone ordinance triggered an unexpected buzz-saw of opposition because of how it’s worded and the precedence it could set in stripping aldermen of powers they hold dear.
The substitute ordinance drafted by the Law Department would allow additional designated quiet zones across the city, but only “upon the approval of” three city departments: Police, Public Health and Transportation.
“Is it possibly a weakening of aldermanic authority? I suppose we could interpret it that way,” Hopkins said.
“But, when the Law Department came back and recommended approval from those agencies, I accepted it. … The legislative action we take to approve this will set the tone going forward. Any future quiet zone designations from an alderman, you’re going to have to work with those agencies to get their approval.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the council’s Black Caucus, argued the required approval by three city departments would “blur the line because it would not allow legislative action without executive sign-off.”
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) noted Hopkins already has sign-off from the three departments.
“Why are you impacting my ward? Why are you passing an ordinance that’s gonna effect me?” Daley Thompson said.
“You’ve created a zone around your hospital. And now, you’re telling us other 49 aldermen, `You’ve got to follow a different process. I’ve got mine and that’s all that matters.’ I don’t think we have to codify it in this way.”
Assistant Corporation Counsel Scott Spears said there’s good reason for requiring approval from the three departments.
“This is a restriction on free speech. It’s important to document the reasons we’re taking these steps. It’s important that, when you do impose these kinds of restrictions, that you, in effect, make a record,” he said.
“That is why we’d like these departments to weigh in whenever there is an attempt to designate a quiet zone under this ordinance. It acts as a check … and helps insulate the city from liability.”
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) is the most outspoken critic of the executive order that Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed on the day she took office stripping aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting in their wards.
On Thursday, Lopez demanded the language be re-written to require “consultation with” — not approval from — the three departments.
“If we fall on this, this is just the beginning of what will be tied to every ordinance moving forward. Aldermen will not be able to move an inch without getting approval of the administration,” Lopez said.
“Handcuffing us — not being able to do our elected legislative duties until we get some bureaucrat’s OK — is just not acceptable. It’s an attempt to castrate aldermen and undermine the legislative process.”
Lightfoot has also promised to end aldermanic prerogative over zoning at the heart of so many aldermanic indictments over the years. But that will require council approval — no sure thing.
That’s apparently why the mayor has put off that fight until after her 2020 budget passes.
“One thing at a time. We’ve got a lot of things on our plate,” the mayor said told the Sun-Times editorial board the day she delivered her budget address.
“The executive order was a big shock to the system of many of our aldermen who really enjoyed and fully exercised aldermanic prerogative. We’re building relationships with them.”
The Committee on Public Safety took no action on Hopkins’ ordinance. The committee will meet again Monday to reconsider the legislation, Lopez hopes, with softer language.