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Lightfoot pulls plug on her own plan to strip aldermen of total control over signs

The mayor cited “important feedback and concerns” from small businesses, aldermen, community leaders and others in asking Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) to pull the proposal off Tuesday’s agenda.

Chicago City Hall
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has put on hold an ordinance that would have given more muscle to an executive order she signed just after taking office.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday pulled the plug on her own plan to strip aldermen of their unbridled control over business signs to avoid what could have been an embarrassing City Council defeat.

The City Council’s Transportation Committee was poised to consider the mayor’s plan to give legislative muscle to the executive order she signed just hours after taking office.

But shortly before the meeting, the mayor’s office announced Lightfoot had asked Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) to pull the item from his agenda.

“After holding numerous briefings with City Council on the latest reforms, we have heard important feedback and concerns from small business partners, Council members, community leaders and other stakeholders,” the mayor’s office statement said.

“We believe it’s important to get these reforms right to ensure they deliver on their intended goals of making permit approval processes more equitable for our small business community. Which is why we are working with Alderman Brookins to ensure that we consider every policy option so that these reforms can comprehensively streamline the permitting process.”

Brookins acknowledged the need to approve sign requests more quickly. But he argued the “kink in the water hose” can be removed without eliminating the need for City Council approval of sign ordinances.

“The Council was set up as a strong Council, weak mayor system and a lot of people were concerned about powers being taken away,” Brookins told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.

“You see the abuses when you have a strong executive branch in Washington. So people are concerned about giving up power at this point and not having a say in what goes on in their ward. We’re all elected. We’re all trying to do what’s in the best interest of our community. We all have to answer to people within our community. And the community just assumes that, if a sign is going up that could be objectionable, that we OK’d it.”

The Transportation Committee routinely approves scores of business signs without debate so long as the local alderman approves.

The mayor’s plan would have taken that power away from the City Council and placed the ultimate authority in the hands of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno.

The local alderman would still have had 30 days to object on grounds that a particular sign over the public way would create a nuisance.

But if the aldermen failed to respond, Escareno would have been authorized to approve or deny the sign request. If a sign permit was denied, businesses would have 10 days to appeal. The entire process would last no longer than 60 days.

Hours after taking office, Lightfoot signed an executive order stripping aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

She has promised to do the same for aldermanic prerogative over zoning. But that will require City Council approval — no sure thing in a council feeling its oats and pushing back.

In fact, the mayor’s own Finance Committee chairman has advised Lightfoot to abandon her threat to abolish aldermanic prerogative over zoning because it’s a fight she is destined to lose.

Was Tuesday’s stop sign on signs, yet another warning to Lightfoot to steer clear of a battle royal over zoning?

Brookins would only say, “We need to take a breath, having it communicated to us exactly what the concerns are. Exactly where the pressure points for abuse may occur. How many times this has potentially happened in the past and come up with something that addresses the problem, as opposed to having a solution in search of a problem.”

Lake Forest businessman Charles Cui has plead not guilty to federal bribery charges for hiring indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) to handle property tax appeals in exchange for the now-deposed Finance Committee chairman’s help with a sign for a new Binny’s Beverage Depot that was part of the development Cui was building in Portage Park.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), the mayor’s most outspoken council critic, said Lightfoot did the right thing by pulling the sign ordinance off the agenda.

“Aldermen know what fits the character of the community best. Allowing some unknown bureaucrat at City Hall to [sign off on] a canopy, awning or marquee will be disastrous,” Lopez said.

Lopez accused the mayor of pursuing a “reckless agenda that transforms the City Council from a rubber stamp into a complete non-factor” in matters large and small.