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COVID-19 Relief Package Stalls After Alds. Burke And Lopez Move To Delay Vote And Council Meeting Abruptly Ends

The abrupt end meant aldermen couldn't approve hundreds of millions of dollars for people who need help, Mayor Lightfoot said. "In a time where people are hurting and bearing an inordinate burden, what we need is progress, not parliamentary tactics."

Left: Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Top right: Ald. Ed Burke (14th) Bottom right: Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th)
Facebook; Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — February’s monthly City Council meeting abruptly ended Wednesday after two aldermen used a parliamentary maneuver to delay a vote on a $377 million coronavirus relief package of federal grants.

Following the maneuver, Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), an ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, moved to adjourn the meeting. City Council will now consider and vote on the spending plan and other agenda items on at 3 p.m. Friday.

Meetings must be scheduled with at least 48 hours notice, so had the meeting continued Wednesday it would have further pushed back the time a new one could begin, setting up a Friday evening start or pushing a vote on the spending package and other items until next week.

Frequent Lightfoot critic Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) teamed up with 50-year veteran Ald. Ed Burke (14th) to “defer and publish” the spending ordinance, a tactic to delay a vote on a matter until the next meeting of the City Council. 

Lightfoot’s rise to the top of a crowded mayoral race in 2019 was due in part to her criticism of opponents for their ties to Burke, who was indicted on federal corruption charges several months before the election. Burke has denied wrongdoing.

The abrupt end to the City Council meeting meant aldermen couldn’t approve $179 million in federal COVID grants awarded to the Department of Public Health and $79.8 million in additional funding awarded to the Department of Housing for rental assistance, Lightfoot said.

The mayor said she’s confident the spending plan will be approved Friday.

“In a time where people are hurting and bearing an inordinate burden, what we need is progress, not parliamentary tactics,” she said.

She also criticized Burke directly, saying he “didn’t take advantage of the opportunity” to attend briefings with the administration to better understand the spending.

Lopez said he and Burke delayed the vote to send a message to Lightfoot that her administration needs to provide “honest answers” to the questions aldermen have raised about the spending.

“I hope the mayor takes to heart that she and her team need to come up with more realistic explanations of what exactly they’ve been doing with the [federal relief dollars],” he said.

During a Budget Committee meeting Friday that advanced the package to the full City Council, Burke criticized the Lightfoot administration for a lack of transparency in the decision to spend $280 million of the city’s $1.2 billion federal COVID relief dollars in 2020 on police personnel. 

After a terse exchange with Budget Director Susie Park over how $280 million could be spent on Chicago Police personnel costs in just two-and-a-half months, Burke said he had more questions than answers.

“These numbers that you’re testifying to today would make most observers highly suspicious,” he said. 

That meeting came after several progressive aldermen criticized the police spending as well, saying it could have been better spent on other measures like rent relief or small business loans. 

At an unrelated Friday news conference, Lightfoot called criticism of the spending “just dumb.”

“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” Lightfoot said. “And here’s why: We had this once-in-a-lifetime experience of COVID-19. It was not part of our budgeting that was passed in the fall of 2019 because we didn’t understand that we were gonna be facing the kind of pandemic and challenges that we faced.

“So the federal government came to cities like Chicago and said, ‘We will provide you with reimbursable funds for moneys that were spent in regard to COVID-19.’ So we saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by saying ‘yes’ to the federal government.

“Should we have said ‘no’? ‘No, no, no, no, no, federal government, we’ll incur this expense. …’ That would be foolish. And, of course, we didn’t do that.”

During the Friday meeting, Budget Director Susie Park sought to reshape the narrative to discuss the entire $1.2 billion in coronavirus relief funds the city spent in 2020 rather than focusing on the smaller discretionary spending allowed to be spent on personnel costs directly related to responding to the pandemic.

The coronavirus package of new federal grants, including $79 million towards rental and mortgage relief, and $68 million in 2020 relief funds rolled over into 2021.

“We believe we were able to reflect our values in addressing the needs of our residents across the city while also keeping the city fiscally stable throughout an extremely unpredictable emergency,” she said.

Park also provided more detail on how the $280 million towards CPD personnel costs from March through mid-May was spent, saying the money could only used for actions directly tied to the city’s coronavirus response.

Those costs came prior to widespread protests and civil unrest that broke out the last weekend of May, Park stressed.

Those duties included Covid-19 wellness checks, screening at the city’s two airports, security at testing sites, “round the clock” security when the city converted McCormick Place into a field hospital, assisting at isolation and quarantine facilities and enforcing the state’s emergency stay at home order.

Park did not provide a specific dollar amount for each activity, but said around $150 million was spent on salary, $126 million paid for officer fringe benefits and $3 million was spent on police overtime costs.

One casualty of Wednesday’s adjournment is the proposed Anjanette Young Ordinance, which calls for sweeping search warrant reforms after a wrongful raid on her home. Young will have to wait two more days to see an ordinance introduced.

Young spoke in support of the proposed ordinance, being introduced by five Black alderwomen, Wednesday morning.

Other matters set for a vote on Wednesday before the adjournment will also be delayed, including the Morton Salt Factory project and an update to the redevelopment plans at The Fields in the 31st Ward.

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