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Lightfoot seeks expanded emergency spending and procurement powers during pandemic

Ald. Anthony Beale, on of Lightfoot’s most vocal City Council critics, denounced the ordinance as a “power grab” that is unnecessary because aldermen can conduct city business by holding virtual meetings.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at City Hall press conference in May.
An ordinance the mayor wishes to get approved by the City Council on Wednesday would, among other things, give Budget Director Susie Park carte blanche to “appropriate emergency-related funds from federal, state and other sources.”
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has already used an executive order to grant herself extraordinary spending and contracting powers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now she’s asking the City Council’s Budget Committee to give her even more authority — even though aldermen have adopted rules allowing them to hold virtual Council meetings to conduct substantive city business.

The mayor’s ordinance will be introduced directly to the Budget Committee in preparation for a vote on Tuesday and final sign-off Wednesday by the full Council.

It would give Budget Director Susie Park carte blanche to “appropriate emergency-related funds from federal, state and other sources, establish new funding lines, consolidate funding lines and transfer or otherwise reallocate currently appropriated funds, including transfers between city departments ... to maximize effectiveness of the city response” to the pandemic.

Chief Procurement Officer Shannon Andrews would be empowered to “enter any contract or amendment to a contract as she deems necessary” without requiring economic disclosure statements.

Assets, Information and Services Commissioner David Reynolds could sign “temporary agreements for the use and occupancy of real property” and extend those contracts as needed. Administrative Hearings director Patricia Jackowiak could “postpone hearings and determinations” that she deems necessary “to promote the public good.”

And Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee would be empowered to authorize rent reductions, rent deferrals and other breaks to struggling concessionaires at O’Hare and Midway airports while offering loans and grants to disadvantaged business enterprises at the airports.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken critics, demanded to know why the mayor needs such extraordinary powers. The City Council, meant to be a co-equal branch of government, can hold virtual meetings to authorize mayoral spending decisions, Beale said.

“There’s no reason to be in any rush to give anybody total control when we, as a legislative branch, are the stewards of the money. To give all of that control over to one person without any checks and balances is a dictatorship,” Beale said.

If the ordinance passes, the mayor could “re-program anything at any given time without any checks and balances — without any City Council approval. It’s total control. You can do whatever you want to do and there’s no repercussions. This is the very thing that she campaigned against. And now, she’s trying to do it times a hundred.”

Asked whether he expects opposition to the mayor’s ordinance, Beale said, “There’s gonna be more than you know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull it back.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, said the “unique circumstances of the pandemic” make such sweeping powers necessary.

The ordinance is certain to raise eyebrows among aldermen who already had been pushing back against the mayor’s efforts to usurp their powers before the coronavirus.

“Time is of the essence in wanting to make sure that decisions can be made quickly in making sure that we’re saving lives,” Villegas said.

“This is a very unique circumstance. We just want to make sure there’s some flexibility there.”

Villegas rejected Beale’s claims of a mayoral power grab. He argued Council meetings require 48-hour advance public notice, which doesn’t allow for decisions that must be made on a dime during a pandemic.

“We want to make sure that we’re not running into a situation where we need to find quorums or make a public posting that could delay certain procurements or certain things that need to be done in a timely fashion,” Villegas said.

As for resistance?

“Every alderman has the right to vote however they want to vote,” Villegas said. “They can voice their opinion at the Budget [Committee] meeting.”