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Lightfoot refines signature promise to end aldermanic prerogative

Mayor Rahm Emanuel got a standing ovation from the Chicago City Council at his final meeting. But some aldermen don't feel like cheering some of Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot's proposals, such as ending the long tradition of aldermanic prerogative giving them final say over zoning and permits in their ward. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Facing pushback from some of the City Council’s most senior aldermen, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot tried Wednesday to refine the signature promise of her campaign: ending aldermanic prerogative.

Lightfoot has promised to issue an executive order on May 20 — inauguration day — ending the unwritten rule that has given aldermen virtually iron-fisted control over zoning and permitting in their wards.

The longstanding tradition is at the heart of the attempted extortion charge against former Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and nearly every other aldermanic corruption case over the years.

But if Lightfoot pushes too hard, she could have a fight on her hands with the same aldermen whose support she needs to approve a budget that’s almost certain to include painful cuts and tax increases to satisfy a $272 million spike in pension payments.

Aldermen are reluctant to relinquish any more control at a time when their powers have been greatly diminished . Trash pickup is now done on a grid system, instead of ward-by-ward. An interactive 311 system allows Chicagoans to go around aldermen by making and charting the progress of their own requests for city services.

Wednesday, Lightfoot was asked again about her plans for an executive order ending aldermanic privilege.

This time, she sounded more flexible and less dogmatic.

“I’m having a lot of conversations with current aldermen and looking at ways in which we can address the challenge. … But, it’s a bigger issue than that because there’s lots of different things that aldermen are tasked with responsibility for that really ought to be something that’s done through the executive branch,” she said during a taping of the WLS-AM Radio program “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday.

“Aldermen absolutely have to have notice on things that are going on. They should weigh in, in a constructive way. But what I’m talking about is eliminating the unilateral veto right.”

Lightfoot said she is “thinking very comprehensively about this issue” and plans to confront it on day one. But she didn’t say how.

“What I don’t want is, on citywide issues where there should be a citywide proposal, that we have 50 different fiefdoms carving up an issue,” she said.

“We obviously want to be respectful of aldermen. We want to make sure they are fully engaged and representing their communities. And what I’m proposing doesn’t preclude them from doing that. I want them to do that. But what I don’t want is to have a unilateral, unchecked veto right on everything that goes on in a ward. … It doesn’t work. And we know, given the sad history, it’s a breeding ground for corruption.”

Senior aldermen are not the only ones urging Lightfoot to lower her sights.

Even Inspector General Joe Ferguson, a friend and former colleague from their days together at the U.S. Attorney’s office, has argued that Lightfoot will have a tough time eliminating aldermanic prerogative because you “can’t legislate relationships” and she might have to settle for shining the light on it.

Lightfoot laughed Wednesday when asked if Ferguson will change jobs and become her corporation counsel.

“I’m not gonna let any secrets out yet. Obviously Joe is a person of prominence. I think he’s done a tremendous job as the inspector general. But we’ll roll out who our department heads are at an appropriate time and it’s not now,” she said.

Lightfoot similarly demurred when asked whether Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the City Council’s voice of small business, will be her choice to chair the City Council’s Finance Committee.

“I have a lot of respect for Alderman Tunney. We’ve had a number of different conversations. … And we’re looking at a range of different options, which we’ll reveal shortly,” she said.

Tunney has made it clear he won’t sell his interest in Ann Sather Restaurants to win Lightfoot’s support. Nor does he believe she would insist on it.

He was right.

“The easy thing would be to say we’re gonna ban all outside work. But I want to make sure we’re being fair to people,” she said.

“For me the problem isn’t outside work per se. For a number of members, outside work is really important. The nub of the problem is work that conflicts with what should be their primary responsibility, which is service to the public.”

Lightfoot also had a final word for those who believe she’ll have a tough time rounding up 26 votes in a Council that has taken a sharp turn to the left, with six socialist members.

“We’re not gonna agree on every issue. And I’m also not gonna be a mayor who thinks it’s a loss if I don’t have 100 percent support on every issue,” she said.

“We’re a democracy. People are gonna have different perspectives and viewpoints. I just want to make sure we’re actually getting things done for the residents of this city.”