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Lightfoot wants Austin out as committee chair before crucial vote

“I think it’s virtually impossible for an alderman to be able to fulfill their responsibilities to their ward and residents who are in need, particularly now, when they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head. And that is a federal indictment,” the mayor said Monday.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2019.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2019.
Sun-Times file

Two months after being indicted on federal bribery charges, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) still chairs the City Council’s Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity.

But not for long, if Mayor Lori Lightfoot has anything to say about it.

Lightfoot left no doubt she wants Austin to step down as chairwoman before the newly-created committee holds a pivotal vote on the mayor’s plan to extend Chicago’s construction set-aside program until December 2027 and dramatically alter its eligibility requirements.

On Tuesday, Austin is scheduled to chair her first committee meeting since she, along with her chief of staff, were indicted. It’s a “subject matter hearing” only, meaning no vote will be taken on the six-year extension.

Nor will aldermen vote on the mayor’s plan, which would: allow minority-and women-owned companies to qualify for the program until they reach 150% of a size standard set by the U.S. Small Business Administration; use gross receipts averaged over a seven-year period, instead of five years; and narrow the factors used to calculate personal net worth by eliminating non-liquid assets that include real estate, retirement savings and the owner’s interest in non-certified businesses.

By the time a vote is taken, Lightfoot hinted strongly on Monday, a different alderman will be banging the gavel.

“I think it’s virtually impossible for an alderman to be able to fulfill their responsibilities to their ward and residents who are in need, particularly now, when they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head. And that is a federal indictment,” the mayor said, adding she’s already “had that conversation” with Austin.

“I will continue to be in dialogue with her. But I think it’s very difficult for her to be able to do her job, just as it is [for] the others who are indicted. It’s an extraordinary thing that we have three sitting aldermen indicted. That’s not a good thing for our city.”

Lightfoot created the Committee on Contracting and Oversight — and chose Austin to chair it — as a consolation prize to line up the 26 votes she needed for her Council reorganization in 2019.

It happened after the mayor dumped Austin as chairman of the Council’s powerful Budget Committee, replacing Chicago’s second most senior alderman with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), one of Lightfoot’s closest Council allies.

The always outspoken Austin initially said she wasn’t interested in a consolation prize. But she accepted it, becoming one of Lightfoot’s most reliable Council votes.

Austin has pleaded not guilty to charges of taking home-improvement bribes — including new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops — from a developer seeking her help in navigating a project through the City Hall bureaucracy. She is also accused of lying to FBI agents who sought to question her about the perks.

Austin’s indictment was preceded by the racketeering indictment of Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and followed by the bank fraud indictment of Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th).

Burke stepped down immediately as Finance Committee chairman after the first charges were filed against him, regarding the alleged shakedown of a Burger King franchise holder. Then-candidate Lori Lightfoot led the charge in demanding his resignation as chairman and followed by demanding that Burke step down as alderman.

She has been comparatively silent about Austin and Daley Thompson, grandson of one mayor and nephew of another.

Lifeguard sexual assault scandal

Also Monday, Lightfoot said she would await a final report from the Chicago Park District’s inspector general before deciding whether to fire Parks Supt. Mike Kelly for his handling of the burgeoning scandal into rampant sexual assault, sexual harassment and physical abuse among district lifeguards.

Last week, the Park District’s deputy inspector general said he was placed on “indefinite, unpaid emergency” suspension in what he called an illegal attempt to “whitewash” the investigation.

Kelly has been under fire for giving top managers first crack at investigating a female lifeguard’s complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment, and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach, instead of referring those allegations immediately to the inspector general.

That’s what he promised the young woman he would do in an email applauding the lifeguard for her “courage” in coming forward.

Though required by park district rules, Kelly did not contact the inspector general until a second lifeguard’s more graphic complaint of more serious allegations was forwarded to him by the mayor’s office.

“We have to allow the IG to finish her work and not litigate this in the press where you have pieces of information. He’s got pieces of information,” the mayor said.

“The IG is the one that’s gonna be able to see the whole picture. We have to respect her process.”