Chicago aldermen will lose control over everything from the location of Divvy stations in their wards to special event permits, garbage cart requests and live tree removals, thanks to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to chip away at aldermanic prerogative.
Hours after taking office, Lightfoot signed an executive order stripping aldermen of their sweeping authority over licensing and permitting in their wards. It gave city department heads 60 days to implement the changes.
With the July 19 deadline fast approaching, top mayoral aides held closed-door briefings Thursday to spell out for aldermen the specific powers they stand to lose.
It wasn’t pretty.
In addition to trees, garbage carts, special event permits and Divvy stations, chief of policy Dan Lurie told angry aldermen they also would be stripped of authority over: large lots; landmarks; local tax-increment-financing projects; and grants tied to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund bankrolled by contributions from downtown developers.
Aldermen would also lose authority over special service area appointments and budgets, affordable housing matters and demolition applications.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) accused Lightfoot of using the burgeoning City Council corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th) as an excuse to turn aldermen into “bobble-heads.”
“What does an alderman’s ability to get garbage cans … have to do with ending aldermanic prerogative?” he asked.
“Taking away … live trees isn’t related to corruption. The location of Divvy stations, landmark designations — all of that has nothing to do with what her stated goal was,” Lopez added.
“You need aldermen who are able to communicate with their [special service areas] and say, ‘Let’s look at the priorities for the neighborhood. Let’s look at the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. What are the businesses we’re trying to attract? What are the projects we want to do with our TIFs?’ If you’re gonna take all of that out of the hands of the local alderman and give it to someone [at City Hall] ... with no recourse to appeal, that’s gonna have dangerous implications in our neighborhoods.”
Lopez has been the most outspoken critic of Lightfoot’s executive order. But he was not alone during Thursday’s “tense” briefings.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said his “entire meeting turned into aldermen expressing their opposition to the concept and pushing back.”
“We are elected to make these decisions. … Taking this authority away from aldermen and turning it over to faceless bureaucrats who have no public interaction is not a guarantee that corruption will be eliminated forever,” Hopkins said.
The 14-count racketeering and extortion indictment against Burke and the recent raid on the 34th Ward office of former Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin strengthened Lightfoot’s hand.
But, Hopkins said: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that only aldermen can be corrupt and that, therefore, aldermen should forfeit their authority to make these decisions. It’s an excessive solution to high-profile cases that are outliers.”
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) accused Lightfoot of hanging aldermen out to dry by turning bread-and-butter decisions over to City Hall bureaucrats.
“If it is some policy guy, what’s their phone number? Can we have the public call them directly when they’re screaming at us?” Brookins said.
“Some of those things, they just automatically assume that we can help them and, if it doesn’t get done or the wrong thing gets done, it’s because we did it. We will pay the price for this.”
Lurie acknowledged “change is hard,” but Lightfoot is determined to deliver the reform she promised to Chicago voters who gave her a 74% mandate.
“They are executive functions and they’re really important because the mayor wants to make sure city services are distributed and managed in an equitable way across all 50 wards and not ad-hoc,” Lurie said.
As for aldermen, he said, “This frees up their resources and time from having to weigh in on everything to allowing them to think about citywide concerns and make sure we’re partnering around legislation and oversight.”
Lightfoot’s executive order requires city department heads to document aldermanic contacts in a report to the mayor every 60 days.
“If an alderman says, ‘Don’t put this Divvy station there’ for legitimate reasons, then that usually will carry the day,” Lurie said.
The goal is “to make sure that aldermanic input is documented and that it’s taken seriously. But, it is not the only factor that they need to consider when making these decisions,” Lurie added.
Lightfoot has also promised to rein in aldermanic prerogative over zoning. But that will take a City Council vote — one that will be tougher now, judging by the tone of Thursday’s briefings.