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Lightfoot Moves To End Veto Power By Aldermen, Drawing Praise And Scorn For ‘Picking A Fight’

The mayor-elect said the unchecked practice of "aldermanic prerogative" is at the core of Chicago's corruption for decades.

Lori Lightfoot/Facebook
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CITY HALL — Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot will issue an executive order Monday shortly after taking office to end aldermen’s ability to veto — or green light — licenses and permits in their wards in an effort to fulfill her promise to root out corruption at City Hall.

In a series of aldermanic briefings Tuesday, Lightfoot’s representatives told aldermen she would not seek to immediately curtail the power aldermen have over zoning change requests — delaying a full-fledged battle that could put Chicago’s first ever black female chief executive at loggerheads with 50 aldermen.

It remains to be seen whether Lightfoot can undo decades of tradition at City Hall, where aldermen have relied on the unwritten rule to give each other the final say over most issues in their wards. During the campaign, Lightfoot blasted that practice for allowing corruption to breed unchecked in Chicago government — and for reinforcing the racial and economic segregation that plagues the city.

Lightfoot said her executive order was the “first step in ending the aldermanic prerogative,” and called Tuesday’s discussions “productive and substantive.”

“Aldermen will no longer be able to single-handedly approve, affirm, block or unilaterally veto on administrative actions at the expense of service delivery for our residents,” Lightfoot said. “The days of aldermanic prerogative as an unchecked veto are over. It has bred corruption and impeded progress in our neighborhoods and it has to end.”

While some aldermen praised the as-yet undrafted plan as long-needed steps toward reform, others accused Lightfoot of “steamrolling” and “disrespecting” aldermen and pushing a proposal that could lead to chaos in Chicago’s wards.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) — who campaigned vigorously for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and against Lightfoot during the mayoral campaign — posted two of the slides from the briefing on Twitter because he said “what the new administration is cooking up is good.”

“It sets the floor for good government reforms in Chicago,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“Aldermen will have a voice — but no longer a veto — on agency decisions, such as permits and licensing,” according to the proposal shown to aldermen.

Permits and licenses will be issued — or denied — based on “objective criteria” after input from community members and aldermen. That will allow small businesses to “count on clear and standard rules for procedures,” according to the proposal.

Lightfoot’s order will instruct city departments to conduct a review to determine “where aldermen are currently using prerogative and providing input” and to develop “transparent standards for soliciting and receiving aldermanic input,” according to the proposal.

Quarterly reviews of the implementation of the new rules will take place to ensure “we can adjust and improve,” according to the proposal.

Ald.-elect Daniel La Spata (1st) said Lightfoot’s proposal would end the current system “where there is 50 different processes in 50 different wards” and replace it with a more standardized, consistent process.

La Spata said he would continue to push for reforms to the city’s zoning code.

Ald.-elect Mike Rodriguez (22nd) praised Lightfoot for making good on her promise to “shake things up on day one.”

“But the devil is in the details and we still need specifics,” Rodriguez said. “It is an important first step by the mayor.”

The use of aldermanic prerogative is at the heart of the attempted extortion charge the federal government lodged against Ald. Ed Burke (14th) in January, claiming he abused that power to stop a planned renovation of a Burger King restaurant in his ward in an attempt to force the eatery’s owners to hire his private law firm. Burke has said he did nothing wrong.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) blasted Lightfoot’s proposal, saying it will curtail aldermen’s “entire job description” and “fundamentally change” how aldermen operate.

“To use her great mandate to pick this political fight when we are facing a half-billion dollars in revenue we have to come up with and all these other more important pressing matters, police fire contracts, police accountability and reform, where you should use that earned political capital,” Lopez said. “You won’t have that leverage in the fights that are needed further down the road that are going to be of much more importance to the city of Chicago than whether or not an alderman has the right to make decisions in their ward.”

Lightfoot would no longer allow aldermen to veto permits for alley access, sidewalk cafes, disabled parking, traffic recommendations and block parties, among other issues.

Lopez said that could result in a “gang parade” being given a permit for a block party.

“To say that one cookie-cutter approach is going to be how we address all 78 neighborhoods in the city of Chicago is just going to spell disaster,” Lopez said.

All 50 aldermen were elected on promises to protect their wards and represent residents, Lopez said.

“I think there is a certain level of disrespect that aldermen are feeling right now,” Lopez said, accusing Lightfoot of depicting “all aldermen as corrupt with a hidden agenda.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said Lightfoot’s proposal was an “overreach.”

In an interview with WBBM radio, Lightfoot said action was required.

“If you look back at the history of all aldermen who have been charged with crimes, the one unifying thing is consistently the exercise of aldermanic prerogative, which is unchecked,” Lightfoot said. “That is a unifying theme in the corruption that has linked 30-plus aldermen together and led to federal convictions.”

Aldermen could disregard Lightfoot’s order and continue to follow their colleagues’ lead — but Lightfoot vowed to enforce the changes.

“But what will change is their ability to stop literally anything in their wards in their tracks unilaterally, without any oversight or any voice from anybody else,” Lightfoot said to WBBM.