ALBANY PARK — Candidates weighed in on aldermanic privilege, the clout City Council members wield to approve or kill developments in their wards, at a 33rd Ward debate at Bateman Elementary Thursday.
All three candidates — Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) and challengers Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez and Katie Sieracki — acknowledged aldermanic privilege is an issue, but each had differing approaches to tackling the problems the power creates.
A study last year called “A City Fragmented” by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law detailed the power aldermen have to block — or allow — affordable housing developments and how this has impacted racial divides in Chicago over the decades.
Critics of aldermanic privilege, also called aldermanic prerogative, say it opens the doors for unethical behavior and even outright corruption.
Mell, daughter of political powerhouse and former alderman Richard Mell, said the privilege should be taken away altogether when it comes to vetting affordable housing projects.
“I think that is a good place to start,” Mell said.
Additionally, Mell said aldermen could avoid potential conflicts of interests by not having jobs other than alderman.
“I’ve only had one job my whole life in public service,” she said.
Mell also said she voted against expanding the city Inspector General’s power to investigate aldermen in 2016 because at the time the measure excluded the $100 million workers compensation fund embattled Ald. Ed Burke (14th) oversaw until last month.
Rodríguez-Sánchez, a community organizer and community theater artist, said the root problem regarding aldermanic privilege, zoning and corruption in City Hall is that aldermen can freely associate with developers under the city’s current rules. Aldermen have the power to oversee and approve deals that financially benefit developers who may also may be donating cash to their re-election campaigns, she said.
If elected, Rodríguez-Sánchez said she would pursue measures that would curb that free association as well as strengthen enforcement of the city’s conflict of interest rules.
“Aldermen and campaigns should pledge to not accept any developer money. That’s problematic and facilitates those relationships,” Rodríguez-Sánchez said. “Even the appearance of that conflict is problematic.”
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She suggested adding more participatory zoning and budget opportunities to allow neighbors to shape how the ward is developed.
“And the idea of creating more spaces for organizing,” Rodríguez-Sánchez said. “The more people can actually hold their elected officials accountable, the more sure we are that the people who are elected aren’t going to go and abuse that power.”
Regarding development, Sieracki, managing director of summits for a business-to-business media company, touted her support of mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot’s people-first pledge to strengthen oversight of City Council.
“I want to make sure we have a community plan put together,” Sieracki said. “So that whenever there is a zoning decision to be made we can all assess it as an independent project that relates to that larger plan.”
Sieracki also said the City Council needs to reflect that residents identify themselves by which neighborhood they live in, not using arbitrary ward boundaries. Any community plan has to reflect neighborhoods that may be split up among multiple wards, she said.
The 33rd Ward covers Ravenswood Manor, Avondale, Albany Park and Irving Park. Mell was first appointed to the City Council seat in 2013 and re-elected 2015.
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A full video of Thursday’s forum can be found below.
Below are highlights from Block Club’s live coverage of the forum. The full tweet thread can be found here.
For a full guide to the 2019 municipal elections, check out Chi.Vote here.
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