City Council authorizes $377 million in federal stimulus spending

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was confident she would get her way 48 hours after two City Council critics used a parliamentary maneuver to delay the vote. And she was right.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference in December 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

At a tension-filled meeting that revived an old political feud, the City Council on Friday authorized another round of federal stimulus spending despite the political furor triggered by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to use $281.5 million from earlier relief funds to cover police payroll costs.

Just hours before, Lightfoot had said she was confident she would get her way 48 hours after two of her most dedicated Council critics — deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) — used a parliamentary maneuver to delay the stimulus vote.

“Our residents are literally still fighting for their lives every single day. What they want all of us to do is focus on the things that are important to them. To deliver for them,” the mayor said before the meeting.

“That’s what we ought to be focused on and not a lot of political theater and drama. Nobody has any patience or time for that.”

The mayor advised those who want to protest the police spending to simply “vote no” instead of attempting to use “a series of procedural and, in my view, anti-democratic processes” to delay the vote.

Burke, Lightfoot’s long-time political nemesis, was unmoved.

As debate began, the indicted alderman moved to send the authorization ordinance back to committee after delivering a lengthy speech as only he can, poking holes in Budget Director Susie Park’s written explanation of the police spending.

Burke said Park’s explanation raised “more questions than answers.”

“It’s hard to conceive how these memoranda can justify the expenditure of $281.5 million in a 10-week period of time, providing there are no examples of how many officers were re-directed from their ordinary assigned duties to augment the functions reported to justify this reimbursement,” Burke said.

Even so, Burke’s motion to send the matter back to committee was defeated, 31 to 16. The vote to approve the stimulus spending was 37 to 10.

After the vote, Lopez warned his colleagues they were making a grave mistake that could cost Chicago taxpayers in the long run.

“My concern is that, at some point, if the numbers are being fudged as I believe they are ... this body will undoubtedly have to reimburse the federal government when the treasury audit of how we spent our dollars happens,” Lopez said.

“That should give every single member of this body pause. Not knowing whether or not the federal government can sign off on all of these expenditures. ... To leave the taxpayers on the hook for this $400 million mistake is not something I personally want to be left holding the bag for.”

Lightfoot countered: “Alderman Lopez, you’ve made a very serious allegation which we do not take lightly.”

When Lopez attempted to respond, the mayor cut him off: “Sir, please.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said Lightfoot’s decision to use stimulus funds on police payroll and benefits “should be of concern to all of us,” given the “disproportionate effect” the pandemic has had on Black and Brown communities.

“Over 5,000 Black and Brown residents ... have died. We have serious suffering in our communities. Over 750 murders last year. And with all those tragedies, many affecting the most vulnerable, I truly think it was a slap in the face to our communities to see $280 million go to the Chicago Police Department while we still wait for a police accountability bill,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Friday’s vote authorizes $377 million in stimulus spending. That includes $68 million of federal coronavirus aid carried over to the 2021 budget; $79.8 million for emergency rental assistance; $179 million for the Department of Public Health to administer the coronavirus vaccine; and a $50 million increase from FEMA.

Earlier this week, Burke and Lopez exercised the right of any two aldermen to delay consideration of an agenda item for one meeting.

Lightfoot responded to the delay as she has before when things don’t go her way at a Council meeting: She summoned aldermen back into session late on a Friday afternoon to approve the stalled ordinance.

The mayor has called the raging political debate about that spending “just dumb” and a “total head-scratcher.” She has argued the alternative was to reject the federal money and saddle beleaguered Chicago taxpayers with the tab.

Lightfoot owes her landslide victory to the Burke corruption scandal. She set the tone for her relationship with Burke and his new and diminished role in the City Council 10 days after taking office.

Having presided over her first meeting and installed her new council leadership team, the new mayor seized a chance to humiliate her political nemesis and gloated about her triumph over a pathetic-looking Burke.

Friday’s go-round marked a revival of that long-running feud. And it’s almost certain to continue and even intensify for the remainder of Lightfoot’s term.

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