Lightfoot Takes Aim at Aldermanic Prerogative

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has pledged to get rid of aldermanic prerogative – the unwritten rule that gives Chicago aldermen the final say over zoning changes and permits in their wards.

Lightfoot, who will be sworn in on May 20, has said she is contemplating issuing an executive order “from day one” that will instruct city departments to no longer honor the practice.

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“You obviously have to engage in a dialogue with the City Council,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. “It’s not that alderman no longer are able to have notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

But if the incoming mayor gets her way, aldermen will no longer have the final say.

“If I’ve got to go and kiss the ring of the alderman for everything, for a license to have a block club party or whatever it is and there is a catalog of all the things that are run through the aldermanic offices, that is fundamentally a problem,” Lightfoot said. “And it’s obviously worse when an alderman takes that power and then tries to monetize it for him or herself.”

But most aldermen are unlikely to accept a diminishment of their power without a fight.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) makes his case succinctly:

“I should have prerogative in what goes on in my ward,” he said. “Who knows my ward better than me?”

Sposato said he’s not trying to pick a fight with Lightfoot, “but she’s not going to walk in and say ‘I’m taking aldermanic prerogative away’ – that’s not going to happen.”

While in principle the concept of aldermanic prerogative might make sense, opponents say that the practice has for decades fueled corruption at City Hall.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board addressed the issue earlier this month:

“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.”

Critics, including Lightfoot, also point out that aldermanic prerogative is at the heart of allegations that Ald. Edward Burke (14th) used his control over permitting to shake down the owner of a Burger King restaurant who needed the alderman’s approval to carry out renovations.

Last Thursday, federal prosecutors sought an extension to a May 3 deadline to indict Burke, who was charged in early January with attempted extortion. The new deadline is June 7.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said the issue of aldermanic prerogative is not just about zoning issues “but also includes insertion of aldermen into areas like building permits, driveway permits (Burke), demolition holds, alley access, signage and more.”

Waguespack said aldermen don’t need to be involved in all of those decisions and that involvement in broader zoning issues impacts citywide planning and development and can lead to good urban planners being sidelined.

Critics also say that aldermanic prerogative has been used by some aldermen to block affordable housing developments in their wards.

“The negatives of unfettered aldermanic prerogative are clear,” write MarySue Barrett and Justin Williams of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It perpetuates segregation, creates disparities in investment across communities and invites political corruption, evidenced by a whopping 30 aldermen convicted since 1972.” 

Sposato and Waguespack join Carol Marin in discussion.

Related stories:

What Keeps Chicago Mayor-Elect Lightfoot Awake at Night?

Federal Prosecutors Seek Second Delay to File Ed Burke Indictment

City Council Approves Massive TIFs for Lincoln Yards, The 78

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