Lightfoot, Aldermen Battle Over Aldermanic Prerogative

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and aldermen are already facing their first contentious battle.

The Lightfoot administration held meetings today with City Council members centered around what kind of power she wants aldermen to wield over projects in their wards. Some are on her side, and others say she is picking the wrong fight.

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After traveling to Springfield and then to Washington, D.C. in recent weeks, Lightfoot on Tuesday funneled aldermen into her transition offices to provide details about an executive order that she plans to pursue on her first day in office. The order would strip away a significant amount of power that aldermen currently enjoy.

Lightfoot campaigned on forcing change in the City Council, and now she is looking to take away the unilateral power aldermen have to initiate, block or delay a variety of decisions, such as who gets a sidewalk permit or a liquor license in their ward. In fact, it is alleged in Ald. Ed Burke’s federal case that he used his power to hold up a driveway permit for a business in exchange for that business hiring his law firm.

Under Lightfoot’s plan, the old system would be replaced with one where departments underneath the mayor’s purview would establish uniform criteria to decide who gets permits, licenses and more.

“It’s really a simple change,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, who says he enthusiastically supports the measure. “Rather than an alderman just picking up the phone and saying, ‘Stop that permit,’ it means the aldermen has to answer to a commissioner.”

Other aldermen in support of the plan say it would get the city’s legislative branch in line with best practices from other cities.

“Aldermen, right now, we have 50 czars,” said Ald. James Cappleman, 46th. “That doesn’t exist in other cities across the country. We have to change that.”

Several other aldermen say that Lightfoot is getting on their bad side before she even takes office, and they caution that she will need their vote on tough decisions pertaining to city finances, crime and more.  

One of those aldermen said he thought a majority of his colleagues would resist Lightfoot’s new directive.

“She might as well say she doesn’t need aldermen anymore,” said Ald. Ray Lopez, 15th. “There is no cookie cutter solution to answer the issues in every neighborhood, and to try to use this to force aldermen to give up their duty to be advocates for their community is not only distressing, it is wrong.”

Still, there are some incoming aldermen who like Lightfoot won in part by campaigning to take power away from individual Council members. Some of them say they’re not quite sure that what they heard today from Lightfoot’s staff goes far enough to change the system.

For example, they point out that the issue of zoning is not included in Lightfoot’s planned executive order, meaning that aldermen will still have final say about which parcel of land can be zoned for residential, commercial or other types of use.

These kinds of decisions have in the past facilitated a pipeline for campaign contributions and corruption. Therefore, some aldermen say that Lightfoot will eventually have to take bolder steps to change the system.

“I believe that it was abuses of prerogative around zoning that brought us to this point, to this call of reform,” said Ald.-elect Daniel LaSpata, 1st.  “And I think that’s going to have to be an ongoing conversation.”

In a statement issued by Lightfoot's transition team, Lightfoot called the discussions "productive" and "substantive."

"The issuance of the executive order on Monday, May 20th, is the first step in ending the aldermanic prerogative," the statement read. "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.

“I was pleased to hear that my team received wide ranging feedback from aldermen, which we will work to take into account to ensure a smooth implementation process," the statement continued. "As we emphasized to aldermen today, aldermanic voice is critical, both in developing citywide policy and in making local decisions. But 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.”

The new mayor and all of the aldermen will be sworn in May 20.

Note: This story has been updated with a statement from Lightfoot's transition team. 

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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