City Council approves emergency powers ordinance

The proposal to give Mayor Lori Lightfoot extraordinary spending and contracting authority to respond to the coronavirus pandemic was approved by a 29-to-21 vote.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Sun-Times file

By a roll call vote reminiscent of Council Wars, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday got the expanded spending and contracting authority she says she needs to respond on a dime to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two days after a handful of aldermen called it a “power grab” and used a parliamentary maneuver to temporarily block it, the City Council approved the mayor’s ordinance by a vote of 29 to 21. That’s the same roll call produced repeatedly during the 1980’s power struggle known as Council Wars that saw 29 mostly white aldermen thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

Prior to the final vote, several aldermen pleaded with their colleagues not to relinquish their role as a co-equal branch of government charged with appropriating city funds.

They argued Lightfoot alone should not be allowed to decide how to spend the avalanche of federal stimulus money pouring into Chicago.

“What we need is accountability. … We cannot go back to the time when we had one mayor overseeing everything and a rubber stamp” City Council, said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

“We can no longer go back to the time when unilateral decisions” by the mayor gave Chicago a “horrific parking meter deal.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said Lightfoot has “unilateral control” over Chicago Public Schools and teachers had to strike to get the pay raise and benefits they deserve. She has “unilateral control over demolitions” and it resulted in the “disastrous” smokestack demolition in Little Village.

“This is supposed to be a democracy,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said his West Side constituents did not elect him to “be a beggar.”

“I believe we should not only have a voice, but a vote” in how federal money is spent, Ervin said.  

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was the only alderman to speak in favor of the ordinance. He credited Lightfoot for making substantive changes.

With those amendments, including a June 30 expiration date, aldermen are “not sitting in the trunk anymore” but “riding shotgun” on how more than $500 million will be spent, Reilly said.

After the meeting, Lightfoot shrugged off the closeness of the vote.

She argued that 29 aldermen, “more than needed for a majority,” had voted to “make sure that we are continuing to focus on what’s important.”

“What I’m focused on is that today, we had another 800 infections and, importantly, 36 deaths. So what the 29 voted for was to make sure that we continue doing everything we can to keep our residents safe in this time of pandemic and to continue to have a sense of urgency around the measures that are needed to do just that,” she said.

Full Council approval was never in doubt, particularly after Lightfoot abruptly adjourned Wednesday’s meeting and tried to isolate and vilify the dissenters as “shameful,” “selfish” grandstanders jeopardizing public safety.

Still, the mayor was forced to make changes to appease aldermen reluctant to relinquish any more power than she has already stripped away from them.

To avoid a City Council rebellion, Lightfoot agreed to put a $1 million limit on the emergency contracting authority and give the City Council’s Budget Committee weekly summaries of emergency spending and contracting activity.

She agreed not to waive the required economic disclosure statement, but gave contractors a 60-day grace period to submit those statements. And most importantly, she agreed to let the extraordinary emergency spending and contracting powers expire June 30.

That is, unless Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady makes an earlier “written determination that the threat to public health posed by COVID-19 has diminished to the point that this ordinance can be safely repealed.”

The mayor also agreed to stipulate “any and all” monies spent, borrowed or transferred under the ordinance would be used only for the city’s response to COVID-19.

Lightfoot has categorically rejected the suggestion she is using the pandemic to consolidate power.

When a reporter noted that Ramirez-Rosa had called it a “lie” that she needs emergency powers to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), the mayor replied, “I don’t put much stock in anything Ald. Ramirez-Rosa says at any time.”

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