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Aldermen to be stripped of absolute power over licenses and permits, not zoning

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) (left) and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). | Chicago Sun-Times file photos

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot will honor her signature campaign promise by stripping aldermen of their absolute power over licenses and permits in their wards but not zoning — at least for now, aldermen were told Tuesday.

Six days before swearing-in ceremonies at Wintrust Arena, aldermen emerged somewhat relieved from closed-door briefings about the executive order Lightfoot plans to issue on inauguration day.

Lightfoot’s executive order will strip aldermen of their veto power when it comes to licenses and permits for everything from liquor licenses, disabled parking, parades and driveway permits to alley access, signs, block parties and sidewalk cafes.

But, aldermen will retain their absolute power over zoning–at least until a broader re-write of the city’s zoning code, something that could take years.

That’s even though some aldermen have used their unilateral control over zoning to block affordable housing and keep Chicago segregated.

“Zoning is not part of the executive order. Zoning is not being touched here,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th).

Asked if he was relieved about Lightfoot’s decision to deliver on her most important campaign promise in stages, Cardenas said: “I am — only because we need to try this out and make sure that this does not affect residents as much as it could.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) noted aldermen will still have the ability to weigh in before licenses and permits are issued, but they will finally have to follow certain “criteria.”

“This is a change that should have happened a long time ago,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Other aldermen raised concerns about being stripped of their ability to rid their wards of bad businesses that serve as magnets for crime.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) went so far as to accuse Lightfoot of fundamentally changing an alderman’s job description and attempting to “steamroll” a City Council she has “disrespected.”

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“If your goal here is to basically say we’re not needed in this capacity, then just come right out and say we don’t need aldermen anymore. Because that’s borderline where we’re headed with this kind of action,” Lopez said.

Lightfoot’s decision raises safety concerns, particularly when it comes to block parties and parades, Lopez said.

“If you have players who fit some universal requirement, but are not necessarily good players, you could have a gang parade,” Lopez said.

“City Hall bureaucrats say, ‘They checked all the boxes. We’ll approve of it.’ You could object to it. But there’s no guarantee they’re gonna listen.”

Aldermanic prerogative is the unwritten rule that has given aldermen virtually iron-fisted control over zoning and permitting in their wards.

That tradition is at the heart of the attempted extortion charge against former Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and nearly every other aldermanic corruption case over the years.

Burke was accused of shaking down a Burger King franchise owner by holding up a driveway permit in his Southwest Side ward for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Although Lightfoot won 74% of the vote and carried all 50 wards, Lopez questioned the mayor-elect’s decision to “use her great mandate to pick this political fight” when she has far bigger fish to fry.

“We’re facing a half-billion dollars in revenue we have to come up with and all these other more important, pressing matters — police and fire contracts, police accountability and reform — where you should use that earned political capital,” he said.

“You won’t have that leverage in the fights that are needed further down the road that are gonna be much more important.”

In an interview with WBBM-AM Radio, Lightfoot made no apologies for her decision to strip aldermen of at least some of their already diminished power.

“If you look back at the history of all aldermen who have been charged with crimes, the one unifying thing is consistently the exercise of aldermanic prerogative, which is unchecked. . . . That is a unifying theme in the corruption that has linked 30-plus aldermen together and led to federal convictions,” she said.

Lopez’s decision to position himself as the leader of the City Council opposition is not surprising. He’s a close ally of Burke, who was Lightfoot’s political nemesis long before the raid Nov. 29 on his City Council and ward office.

Lopez’s strident tone was not shared by his colleagues.

“Aldermen know their community better than anyone. But we have seen aldermen who use zoning to reward political sponsors or punish political opponents. I certainly saw it in the 1st Ward. It’s part of why I was elected,” said Alderman-elect Daniel LaSpata (1st), one of six democratic socialists to be seated on the council.