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Lightfoot’s request for emergency contracting authority stalls amid opposition

An aide said the mayor needs the authority to deal with supply chain disruptions and price increases. This comes a day after her plan to lift the ban on sports betting and impose a 2% tax on gross revenues also went nowhere.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago City Hall.
Sun-Times file

For the second straight day, an avalanche of opposition is stalling one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s legislative initiatives — this time authorization to sign and modify emergency contracts up to $1 million without City Council approval.

On Tuesday, the mayor’s plan to lift the ban on sports betting in Chicago and impose a two percent tax on gross revenues stalled in a joint City Council committee.

On Wednesday, it was Lightfoot’s request for expanded emergency contracting authority to deal with supply chain disruptions and inflationary price increases that threaten to leave the city without the products it needs to protect public safety.

Chief Procurement Officer Aileen Velasquez tried and failed to convince the Council’s Budget Committee to double — from $500,000 to $1 million—the mayor’s power to sign emergency contracts and modify existing agreements.

Velasquez specifically cited chlorine and other chemicals used to purify Lake Michigan drinking water and aluminum needed to make stop signs as examples of products where supply is short, prices have soared and deliveries could be cut off without an increase in the mayor’s emergency powers.

She argued there are “four or five” contracts that must be modified immediately to protect public safety in an “unstable” market.

“Water chemicals are essential for public health. We need to have those chemicals on hand and be able to have an inventory. And the pricing today, due to market trends and the shortage of supplies...we are seeing increases in those chemicals from anywhere from 22 to 45%, [up] to 100%,” she said.

“In normal circumstances, there wouldn’t be such a shift in pricing. We would be paying, maybe 3 to 5% a year for that material...That’s not what’s happening in the market today. The market is unstable and, because of the shortage, it is demanding these higher prices. Vendors have been trying to comply with the contract and sending us material. But, this has been going on for a while. They can no longer do this.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine insisted the ordinance was “not an attempt to shift contract authority away from the City Council.”

The arguments didn’t fly with anybody on the committee.

Opposition to giving the mayor a “blank check” was so universal, committee chairwoman Pat Dowell (3rd) had no choice but to hold the ordinance. Lightfoot had introduced it — without warning — directly to committee, hoping for immediate consideration.

“We’ve got to have chlorine for our water treatment. I understand that. But, these folks need to live up to the commitments that they made. … We’re not buying gas at the gas pump. We enter into long-term agreements to take advantage of good pricing and the fact that we do use a lot of stuff,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus.

“I don’t like how we’re being treated. … Everybody’s blaming everything on COVID and it’s driving inflation. … This doesn’t feel good. Nor does it smell good.”

Velasquez tried to assure Council members reluctant to relinquish any more power than they already have that the “emergency” powers were only “temporary.”

“Once pricing stabilizes, the intent is to revert to negotiated contract prices. This is just responding to the market and the supply and demand challenges,” she said.

It didn’t work.

“It’s temporary during the bona fide emergency — as defined by you. That could continue on as long as you define it as an emergency. No one has the discussion but you. That’s the conundrum that we’re in,” indicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) told Velasquez.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), Lightfoot’s hand-picked chair of the Committee on Workforce Development, added: “I’ll be voting `no’ on this. Sorry. A million dollars? That needs to come to us.”

When downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) asked Velasquez “how you’ll determine the crisis is over,” he was told prices must stabilize for “60 to 90 days” before emergency powers are lifted.

“I’ve heard enough. I agree with my colleagues. We’re being asked to write a blank check to the administration. And as a legislative body, we have a responsibility to review these things,” Reilly said.

“If it truly is four or five contracts we’re talking about here, let’s have you go and amend those contracts, present these to us and allow us to vote on them.”

It’s not the first time that the Council has balked at giving Lightfoot the expanded spending and contracting authority she says she needs to respond on a dime to the coronavirus pandemic.

In April 2020, amid complaints of a “power grab,” the mayor won similar powers by a 29-to- 21 roll call vote reminiscent of Council Wars.