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Tension Bubbles Between Aldermen And Mayor As Critical Budget Votes Loom

Aldermen have begun pushing back, stalling Lori Lightfoot’s first attempt to increase the supply of affordable housing and pressing her appointees on their views of aldermanic power.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the State of the City Address in August.
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CITY HALL — As aldermen prepare to gather Wednesday for the first City Council meeting after Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s announcement that they will have to close an $838 million budget gap before the end of the year, an undercurrent of tension will bubble under the surface.

Lightfoot was elected mayor after making a pledge to root out corruption, and once inaugurated she wasted no time in targeting aldermen. Lightfoot’s first action as mayor was to sign an executive order designed to roll back aldermanic prerogative and end aldermen’s unchecked power in their wards.

With those changes now in place — and more to come — aldermen have begun pushing back, stalling Lightfoot’s first attempt to increase the supply of affordable housing and pressing her appointees on their views of aldermanic power.

The biggest setback Lightfoot suffered this month came at the Housing Committee on Sept. 11, which declined to advance her proposal to use $3 million paid by developers to avoid having to build units for low- and-moderate income Chicagoans to help long-time homeowners stay in six rapidly gentrifying community areas.

Aldermen agreed the mayor’s staff had not done enough to collaborate with community groups, many of which have long been working on affordable housing issues, and delayed that measure until at least next month.

In addition, aldermen did not act on a measure (O2019-6466) that would have allowed the sale of vacant city-owned properties at various locations under Large Lot Program because  aldermen had not yet been provided a list of which properties were set to be sold.

Lightfoot’s executive order aimed at ending aldermanic prerogative ended aldermen’s ability to approve — or veto — sales of city property in their own wards. But those sales must still be approved by the City Council, setting up a potential way for aldermen to push back against the mayor.

The refrain was similar on the previous day, when Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) seized on concerns that the mayor’s office had not solicited feedback from aldermen about eight appointments to the boards of Special Service Areas across the city.

Lopez’ motion to defer those appointments failed, winning support from only one other alderman, Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), cementing Lopez’ place as the biggest thorn in Lightfoot’s side.

In addition, Lightfoot’s first wave of appointments to the Chicago Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals faced unusually close questioning from aldermen on the issue of their power.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a critic of Lightfoot’s moves to scale back aldermen’s power, asked nearly every nominee some version of the same question: will you respect aldermen’s wishes when it comes to items that you’ll have the power to decide in their wards?

Zoning Board of Appeals nominee Jolene Saul said she would take aldermen’s views “into consideration,” since the officials “have a unique depth of knowledge of their ward and the interest of their constituents.”

Beale followed up, asking Saul, “Do you believe that aldermen are the voice of their community?”

After Saul responded that aldermen “are elected to represent their communities,” Beale repeated his question, emphasizing the word “voice.”

“It’s not a trick question,” Beale said.

The alderman ultimately voted to approve Saul’s appointment.

Nominees also faced tough questions from Lopez.

While aldermen were considering nominating Northwest Side Housing Center director and DePaul University adjunct professor James Rudyk Jr. as an alternate to the zoning board, Lopez said Rudyk’s résumé gave him “pause.”

“My concern is [over] putting people on this body that are going to come in with their own mindset, that are going to bring their social justice warrior activism to my neighborhood,” Lopez said. “We’ve seen time and again how the interactions with university-type individuals impose their views on neighborhoods, instead of listening to the views of the neighborhood.”

Lopez and Ald. David Moore (17th) were ultimately the only two aldermen to vote against Rudyk’s appointment.

Rudyk even got a mild rebuke from Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the chair of the zoning committee and an ally of the Lightfoot, when the nominee told Beale that he would consider aldermen’s viewpoints “just like any other resident of that ward.”

“Well, it’s not that we’re like any other citizen,” Tunney told Rudyk. “We’ve been elected by a majority of residents in our ward, and they expect us to be their representative on issues they deal with every day.”

Moore later told The Daily Line that he voted against Rudyk’s appointment because his “like any other resident” answer was “very insensitive,” Moore said.

“It was a total disrespect to the position of aldermen, and our responsibility to represent our constituents,” Moore said. “I represent 53,000 voices, not just one.”

Aldermen pressed Rudyk on his answer, with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) asking him how he would handle a hypothetical special use permit for a beauty salon.

“I would defer to yourself, the alderman, the residents of the community, and those that are directly impacted by the addition of the new salon,” Rudyk said.

“That’s an excellent answer, given your previous answer,” Dowell said.

Next month, Lightfoot will face her biggest legislative test yet as she presents her plan to close the city’s budget gap. With no easy solutions on the horizon, Lightfoot may have no choice to to ask aldermen to take difficult — and potentially career-threatening — votes to raise a host of taxes and fees after having spent months scaling back their power.

Despite the lingering tension between aldermen and Lightfoot, the mayor is likely to notch two significant victories Wednesday.

Lightfoot’s proposal (O2019-5547) to block the city from suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid parking tickets while reducing penalties and offering debt relief to the city’s poor is set for final approval, despite concerns from aldermen that the $15 million price tag is too steep.

In addition, aldermen are also set to approve Lightfoot’s second attempt to revise the city’s ethics laws to broaden the public’s ability to get answers about prominent investigations — such as that of the Laquan McDonald shooting.

The measure (O2019-5548) would allow Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to approve the release of detailed reports “when the conduct investigated is associated with a death or a felony, generating high interest from the public.”

Lightfoot will also introduce a measure to allow the legal sale of cannabis in certain areas of Chicago while banning it in the Central Business District, which includes The Loop.

The requirements would force dispensaries to apply for a Special Use Permit from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which would allow nearby residents to weigh in on the location of the stores.

In addition, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) will introduce a measure that would create a commission of 15 African Americans to develop a plan for the city to correct the legacy of slavery and racist government policies in Chicago.

The following items are also set for the council’s approval on Wednesday:

  • O2019-5753 — A measure that would make it more difficult for developers to convert condominium buildings to apartment complexes by requiring the approval of 85 percent of owners, up from 75 percent. [Daily Line coverage]
  • O2019-5568 — A measure to block real estate developers from using “predatory tactics to persuade, convince, cajole, pressure, force, harass or otherwise coerce any homeowner to sell their property.”
  • O2019-5606 — A sweeping re-zoning initiative that would open the door for some offices and retailers to move into the Kinzie Industrial Corridor west of Fulton Market, while keeping residential development out. [Daily Line coverage]
  • O2019-5544 — Permission for a 13-story, 310-room hotel proposed by Convexity Properties for a vacant lot at 180 W. Randolph St. in the 42nd Ward.
  • O2019-4105 — Permission for 20-story office building at 301 W. Huron St. and an eight-story addition to an existing office building at 308 W. Erie St. in the 42nd Ward.
  • O2019-5535 — Permission for an 84-unit residential building proposed by Cedar Street Companies at 4750 N. Winthrop Ave. in the 46th Ward.
  • O2019-6518 — Endorsement of a tax credit to fund the transformation of the vacant building at 3269 and 3325 N. California Ave. into a veterinary clinic and surgical center.
  • O2019-4118 — An agreement to restructure the loan agreement for the 90-unit Renaissance St. Luke senior housing complex at 1501 W. Belmont Ave. in the 32nd Ward.
  • A2019-52A2019-53 — The re-appointments of Karen Kent and Darrell A. Williams to the City Colleges of Chicago Board of Trustees.
  • A2019-55A2019-54A2019-56 — The re-appointments of Paula Wolff and John P. O’Malley Jr. and the appointment Matthew C. Crowl to the Chicago Police Board
  • A2019-43A2019-42 — The re-appointments of Christopher Valenti and Jodi Block to the Chicago Public Library Board.
  • A2019-57 — The appointment of Jose Munoz to the Chicago Park District Board.
  • A2019-41 — The appointment of Reshma Soni to serve as comptroller.
  • A2019-58 — The appointment of Zurich S. Esposito to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
  • A2019-59 — The appointment of Timothy R. Knudsen as an alternate member of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
  • A2019-60 — The appointment of James Rudyk, Jr. as an alternate member of the Zoning Board of Appeals
  • A2019-61 — The appointment of Jolene N. Saul to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
  • A2019-62 — The appointment of Teresa Cordova as a member of the Chicago Plan Commission.
  • A2019-64 — The appointment of Andre L. Brumfield as member of the Chicago Plan Commission.
  • A2019-65 — The appointment of Deborah C. Moore as a member of Chicago Plan Commission.
  • O2019-6517 — Funding for projects at LaSalle Language Academy and Friedrich L. Jahn Fine Arts School.
  • O2019-6515 — Approval to spend $100,000 to reimburse Friends of Lakeview for the Lowline, a half-mile walkway beneath the Brown Line that connects Southport Avenue and Paulina Street. 
  • SO2019-5595 — A measure to restrict parking in Bronzeville near the bridge over Lake Shore Drive at 41st Street.
  • O2019-6520 — An agreement with Clear, a biometric data firm, that would let the company bring its expedited security service to O’Hare and Midway Airports. 
  • O2019-6519 — An amendment to the city’s 1995 ground lease agreement with Aero O’Hare Express LLC, expanding the 5L5 Express Center Drive parking area at O’Hare.
  • Ten measures permitting and banning the sale of packaged liquor throughout the city, including one to allow the sale of alcohol at the Wicker Park Target [Daily Line coverage]
  • Fourteen measures permitting the sale of city-owned properties [Daily Line coverage]
  • A proposal to settle three misconduct cases for $1.45 million and to pay an injured bicyclist $9.5 million [Daily Line coverage]