Solis zoning shenanigans outlined in Madigan indictment latest sign of abuse of City Council members’ control over zoning

Mayor Lori Lightfoot could use the Madigan indictment to finally deliver on her campaign promise to eliminate aldermanic prerogative. But even the mayor’s staunchest allies are warning Lightfoot not to even try.

SHARE Solis zoning shenanigans outlined in Madigan indictment latest sign of abuse of City Council members’ control over zoning
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (left) and former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis both gave up their offices and have started taking government pensions even as federal authorities have been investigating their actions.

Wednesday’s indictment of Michael Madigan (left) shined a light on the way former Ald. Danny Solis (right) wielded control over zoning in his ward.

Sun-Times file photos

Like the racketeering indictment of Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the indictment of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan lifted the veil — yet again — on abuse of aldermanic prerogative over zoning, something Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised to eliminate.

Former City Council Zoning Committee Chair-turned-FBI mole Danny Solis (25th) tried to abuse the unwritten rule giving council members unbridled control over zoning in their wards, twisting it for corrupt purposes on a land deal in Chinatown that was never consummated.

The Madigan indictment accuses the former speaker of agreeing to transfer control over a state-owned parking lot in Chinatown to the city to clear the way for a commercial development in Solis’ ward. In exchange, the developer agreed to hire Madigan’s law firm to handle its property tax appeals, the indictment alleges.

Lightfoot could use the Madigan indictment to finally deliver on her campaign promise to eliminate council members’ control over zoning in their own wards. But even the mayor’s staunchest allies are warning Lightfoot: Don’t even try.

“I don’t think that vote is winnable. Our constituents want their local alderman’s input. That’s what aldermen do. We control development. … We’re there to engage in our communities and to lead,” said Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the current zoning committee chairman, hand-picked by Lightfoot.

“The definition is unclear, number one. And number two, I believe the vast majority of aldermen are trying to do the right thing, managing citywide initiatives and their local communities. The public has confidence in their local alderman to do the right thing.”

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to eliminate that local zoning control, commonly called aldermanic prerogative, which was at the heart of the racketeering indictments of Burke and Madigan and countless other City Council scandals over the years.

Hours after taking office, Lightfoot issued an executive order stripping council members of their control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

“There have been so many swipes at aldermanic prerogative for little things. With all of the restrictions that we have now as aldermen, to try and take zoning away is gonna be very difficult — especially in the climate in which we’re in currently and the relations, or lack thereof, between the administration and aldermen,” said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Education Committee chairman.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the former Lightfoot floor leader now chairing the Latino Caucus, agreed with his colleagues.

“This would be a vote that the mayor would lose,” Villegas said Thursday.

“There’s been hundreds of projects that have had aldermanic prerogative that have not faced anything similar to what occurred with the former alderman. To paint it with a broad brush and say that everybody shouldn’t have that ability is just wrong,” Villegas added, referring to Solis.

“The General Assembly has given the authority to the alderman. This is something we’re gonna continue to utilize to make sure that it’s the local elected officials who are helping to make the decisions and not a bureaucrat in City Hall.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), the mayor’s most outspoken council critic, called aldermanic prerogative over zoning the “last line of defense toward making sure that we have a voice in our community. ... I don’t see any aldermen giving that authority up.”

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said there is “no guarantee that you can avoid corruption” by shifting final say over zoning from alderpersons to a City Hall bureaucrat.

“We live in the glare of public accountability. We have to stand before the voters every four years and defend the decisions we make in zoning. That’s preferable to having it be made by an appointed person who doesn’t have to appear on a ballot,” said Hopkins, who is mulling a mayoral campaign against Lightfoot.

Parking lot in the 2100 block of South Wentworth in Chinatown, Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 20, 2019.

A federal investigation of Danny Solis and Michael Madigan has exposed behind-the-scenes machinations over state-owned land in the 2100 block of South Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In addition to the Solis zoning shenanigans outlined in the Madigan indictment, Lightfoot may also be emboldened by the zoning change a divided City Council passed in December.

That’s when the council voted 33-to-13 to authorize a 297-unit residential development at 8535 W. Higgins Rd. near O’Hare Airport — with 20% of those units designated as affordable — over the objections of the local council member, Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Lightfoot said then she has a “great deal of respect” for Napolitano, but also that members must rise above their own parochial interests.

“This is critical for our city. It’s critical for us to make a statement about affordability and where it can be located,” the mayor said.

“If the precedent that it sets is there must be affordable housing in every area of our city, I’m all for that. We have to break the grip of segregation. And this is one way that we do it. We put affordable units everywhere.”

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