Lightfoot accused of using pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power

A handful of aldermen and community leaders are still trying to drum up opposition to expanding the mayor’s emergency powers, arguing she shouldn’t decide on her own how to spend millions of federal stimulus dollars.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters Thursday about her decision to close the Lakefront Trail, the downtown Riverwalk and other major public gathering places amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the delays caused by the City Council are precisely the reason she needs broader authority to act during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was accused Thursday of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power.

One day before the City Council is scheduled to meet again to consider granting Lightfoot expanded spending and contracting authority for the duration of the public health crisis, a handful of aldermen and community leaders tried to drum up opposition.

They argued the mayor has no right to decide on her own how hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars should be spent.

Lightfoot has argued that funding from the so-called CARES Act is “specifically designed to pay for costs incurred because of the COVID-19 crisis” and that “long-standing issues” like reducing homelessness are not eligible for reimbursement.

Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st) doesn’t buy it.

“Our homeless neighbors were in desperate and unstable positions long before this crisis. Fifty percent of Chicagoans were struggling to pay their rent. … Mortgage holders were struggling to hold on to their homes. ... All of these housing concerns must be brought to bear,” LaSpata said.

“If we’re talking about close to $50 million in community development block grants and $23 million to support homelessness and $470 million in what the mayor herself describes as ‘flexible funding,’ we need to make sure that the Council has the opportunity to ... [make] sure that these dollars are used to provided both short-and long-term stability for residents who need it.”

Tim Bell, a grassroots leader for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the mayor is spending $175 a night to provide hotel rooms for the homeless, but a week’s worth of one of those rooms — $1,225 — could instead provide “bridge housing” for an entire month.

“We do understand that the mayor needs to get needed resources out to the people. But not at the expense of wasting those resources,” Bell said

“Our current state of emergency is not a time for the mayor to create a situation where she alone has decision-making powers. We live in a democracy with a system of checks-and-balances in place to keep this type of power grab from happening.”

West Side resident Gloria Green of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, said that every week, “another one of our members has died in a senior building or in a nursing home.”

Green wants the federal money spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) for home health care workers and well-being checks and “enforced cleaning regimens” in all senior buildings.

“We cannot afford” to have the mayor “use this global pandemic as an opportunity for a power grab that we will end up paying for with our lives,” Green said.

“I’m appalled that, at a time … when thousands of lives are in jeopardy, our mayor is moving on with these emergency powers that do nothing for the health and well-being of seniors, front-line workers, renters and immigrant families.”

The effort to drum up opposition to the emergency powers ordinance — by the same groups pushing a wide-ranging “Right to Recovery” agenda — is almost certain to fail.

The mayor’s revised ordinance was approved 23-10 by the Budget Committee. A similar margin is expected when the Council meets again at 1 p.m. Friday.

Lightfoot argued again Thursday that there’s no time to call the Council into session with 48 hours’ notice when life-and-death decisions need to be made.

“When we are literally every single day competing for not just supplies for our health care workers and our first responders, but tests that we need to be able to expand testing across the city, we don’t have 48 hours. We barely have four hours. If we delay, we lose,” she said.

Also on Thursday, four members of the City Council’s Socialist Caucus joined community leaders in demanding that all city funding earmarked for spring and summer festivals be redirected to an Emergency Cash Assistance Fund for Chicagoans ineligible for federal assistance because they are undocumented, homeless, ex-offenders or have no banking relationship.

That Zoom news conference was hijacked by someone making screeching sounds and drawing obscene pictures on the screen.

Before that, however, Glo Choi of the Hana Center talked about the struggles of his own undocumented family.

“My mom works in hospitality and has lost most of her wages. She can’t get unemployment benefits. That means at the moment having to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table,” Choi said.

“I’d like people just to think about that for a second — having to be the person to make that choice.”

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