Before Chicago started picking up garbage on a grid system seven years ago, any alderman could order that a certain corner of his ward — or even the home of a favored brother-in-law — be taken care of first.
Aldermen don’t order around the garbage trucks anymore. But for an array of other routine city services — such as granting a shopkeeper permission to put up an awning — they still can call the shots, thanks to an unwritten rule called “aldermanic prerogative.”
Like Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, we think aldermanic prerogative, which was at the heart of several recent criminal scandals, should be seriously curbed. And there are practical ways to do it. Most directly, Lightfoot could simply order all city departments under her control to quit deferring to an alderman’s wishes.
Here’s the tricky part: In the abstract, aldermanic prerogative makes a lot of sense, as dozens of incumbent aldermen and candidates argued when we interviewed them prior to the 2019 elections.
Nobody knows a ward like an alderman, they told us, and they need to have that final say over zoning changes, construction permits and the like to shape their wards for the better.
But the whole history of Chicago politics, going back to when men wore bowler hats and spats, is of aldermanic prerogative being abused by ward bosses more interested in getting rich than serving their constituents. Most recently, aldermanic prerogative was at the heart of an alleged effort by Ald. Edward Burke (14th) to shake down the owner of a Burger King restaurant who needed city permits to carry out a renovation.
Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson is right when he says Lightfoot will have a hard time getting rid of aldermanic prerogative altogether. As he says, the system is informal and you “can’t legislate relationships.”
But we’re not looking for perfect, just better.
And better, in this case, would be Lightfoot’s promised executive order allowing employees of the executive branch — her branch — to overrule an alderman on such matters as where to put a stop sign, a driveway or new affordable housing. We heartily endorse the new mayor putting this into effect when she’s sworn in on May 20.
After being sworn in, aldermen in the new City Council also will have a grand opportunity to put reasonable limits on aldermanic prerogative from their side.
The Council should include a rule that an alderman cannot invoke aldermanic prerogative in any matter that presents a possible conflict of interest, especially with respect to outside employment.
The classic case — and Burke again is the poster child — is of an alderman who also sells insurance or does property tax appeals work. Too often, the alderman’s clients are the dozens of businesses seeking favorable treatment from the Council or a city agency.
As a way of sparing the average Chicagoan from even having to play the game, the Council could abolish committees that deal only with minor issues, such as granting permits for smaller store signs. That kind of stuff should not even come before the Council. Let the appropriate city agency deal with it.
We mildly regret any diminution of aldermanic prerogative for the really good aldermen. They often know best about what to do about a liquor store that sells to minors or a dangerous drug house in their ward, and they should have the power to do something about it.
But, honestly, Chicago has just never had a lot of really good aldermen.
The good ones can blame the slugs for the loss of a good thing.
In addition to being criminally abused, aldermanic prerogative has had the collective effect of undermining thoughtful citywide planning efforts for new development and affordable housing. When an alderman is calling the shots, nobody with a grander vision stands a chance.
“Aldermanic prerogative has stopped a number of good projects,” says Jacky Grimshaw, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president of government affairs.
Aldermanic prerogative, like the old wink and a nod, may always be with us.
But we can at least try to make it work for everyday citizens. And Lightfoot’s planned executive order and possible actions by the incoming Council would be good first steps.
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