One day after being accused of shaking down a Burger King franchise owner for legal work, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) resigned as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee on Friday under pressure from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Burke’s decision to relinquish the primary source of his power — and the taxpayer-funded bodyguards and chauffeur-driven city vehicles that came with it — was announced by Emanuel, with whom Burke has had an uneasy political alliance that has benefited both men since 2011.
He will be replaced by Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the Finance Committee vice chair who just happens to be the mayor’s Council floor leader.
“I spoke with Ald. Ed Burke last night and he’s agreed to resign as chairman of the Finance Committee,” Emanuel said Friday.
“Ald. Burke took the appropriate step to put the interests of the city and the City Council above all else. And I believe this reflects his affection for the city and his deep respect for the institution of the City Council.”
At Emanuel’s behest, O’Connor’s first order of business will be to begin the process of transferring control over the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program from the Finance Committee to the Department of Finance.
That will create more “transparency and oversight” and enhanced “risk management,” said the mayor, who intends to introduce yet another round of ethics reforms next week.
“The process for zoning changes [is] way too opaque. And I plan on this ethics package bringing a floodlight of transparency to that process . . . so there can be no second-guessing about how the process works,” Emanuel said.
O’Connor said the “transition to an executive function” for worker’s comp will take time, but it makes sense to start now.
“That is a significant function that deals with people and their health and their injuries and potential disabilities. It’s not something like throwing on a light switch. You have to transition it,” he said.
“The next Council and the next mayor — at least it looks like it will be going that way from everybody who is campaigning for mayor. So, looking at a transition of that would probably not be a bad thing.”
O’Connor has served together with Burke since O’Connor’s election to the City Council in 1983.
During the Council Wars power struggle that saw 29 mostly white aldermen led by Burke and former Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (10th) thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’ every move, O’Connor was a loyal member of the Vrdolyak 29.
That’s apparently why the new role as chairman of the Council’s most powerful committee is not a promotion that O’Connor relishes. Far from it. He considers Burke an old friend.
“I feel terrible about the whole situation. The whole situation is very difficult,” said O’Connor, who will not have a security detail.
“I wish this wasn’t happening to him. I wish it wasn’t happening to the city.”
A top mayoral aide told the Sun-Times Thursday shortly after the criminal complaint against Burke was unsealed that Emanuel wanted Burke removed as finance committee chairman.
Burke, 75, faces allegations that he tried to shake down Burger King executives for business for his legal firm while the company needed permits to remodel one of its fast-food restaurants in Burke’s 14th Ward. He has said he’s done nothing wrong.
Burke effectively had no choice but to step down as Finance chair. It was either that or face the humiliation of having his colleagues vote him out.
By coaxing Burke to relinquish the Finance Committee chair that has been Burke’s power base for decades, Emanuel hopes to secure the final months of his legislative agenda before the mayor leaves office.
With Emanuel’s floor leader, O’Connor, at the helm, the mayor hopes to secure $1.5 billion in TIF subsidies to unlock the development potential of four mega-projects in and around the downtown area, including Lincoln Yards.
There’s also Emanuel’s plan for $10 billion in pension borrowing that he has been pushing to save beleaguered Chicago taxpayers “as much as $200 million” in his successor’s first budget.
Emanuel would also like to nail down the O’Hare express contract with Elon Musk before he leaves.
“I don’t have a personal agenda in this. I wanna just get the thing moving in the direction it needs to be moving in so the next Council has less to worry about,” O’Connor said.
As for the structure that would set the stage for a $10 billion pension borrowing, O’Connor said, “That’s just a tool that we would make available to the next mayor and Council. I don’t see that as an issue. Giving more options to solve our financial problems is a responsible thing to do.”
By forcing Burke’s hand, Emanuel has come full-circle.
In 2011, the mayor privately blamed Burke for being the heavy-hand behind the residency challenge that nearly forced Emanuel off the ballot.
Shortly before taking office, Emanuel rocked the boat by threatening to strip Burke of the bodyguard detail that has accompanied the alderman since the threats that followed Burke’s leading role in Council Wars. Emanuel even threatened then to depose Burke as Finance chairman.
But Emanuel backed off. He retained Burke as Finance chairman, left the workers’ comp program in his hands and cut his bodyguard detail in half.
Like former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel concluded that Burke was far more valuable as a loyal legislative ally and that he would have been far more dangerous sniping at the new mayor from the outside. After all, nobody knows more than Burke about where the bodies are buried at City Hall. Nobody has more loyalists planted in city departments. Nobody has slated more judges who now occupy the bench.
Now, Emanuel can say that he was the mayor when the City Council was liberated from Burke’s iron-fisted control and finally moved on from a Burke era that has lasted for 50 years.
“An individual has to distinguish between their public life and their private business. And they shouldn’t let those lines ever cross,” the mayor said Friday.
“You can do all of what you’re supposed to do in changing the laws, being clear about the laws of what’s black and white. But in the area of gray, you fall upon your moral judgment and your ethical judgment . . . It doesn’t require a law to say that your public life is not supposed to be . . . enriching your private life.”
O’Connor is well aware that there are some aldermen who would have preferred choosing their own replacement for Burke as Finance chairman.
But he said, “This is not a long-term situation. You’re talking about a span of, perhaps, three meetings. At some point in time, people can act as they see fit. But right now, under our rules, this is what happens. Carrie Austin was sick a couple budget cycles ago. The vice-chairman took the spot. It is a function of the committee structure as it stands today.”
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