Within hours of being sworn in, Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order that aims to significantly curb aldermanic prerogative.
The practice has long been thought of as an unwritten rule that gives aldermen significant sway over what does, and doesn’t happen within their wards – who gets a building permit, whose application for a party gets rejected, whether a rezoning request gets fast-tracked or buried.
It’s no longer unwritten: The order defines the longstanding Chicago practice, defining it on the city’s books as “the power of an alderman to unilaterally approve, affirm, block or veto a departmental decision, whether such power is granted or required by the Municipal Code of Chicago or by tradition or custom.”
Lightfoot said she made signing it her first order of business, as a demonstration she will follow-through on her promise of bringing change to the city.
Still, she went out of her way – both in talking about the order, and in the order itself – to say that the measure does not mean alderman can’t weigh in on what’s happening in their wards.
“This is not ending aldermanic influence, it’s not ending the way in which aldermen conduct their business every day and do hundreds of good things for people in their wards,” she said. “What this is, is ending the unilateral, unchecked power that aldermen have to control virtually every aspect of business in community life that interacts with the city. We want to make sure that people understand that they’re entitled to good, basic city services and that they don’t have to give more to get there. So aldermen will, of course, continue to have a voice. But they will no longer have a veto.”
Under the order, city departments are directed to not defer to aldermen.
Aldermen are still welcome to give their input (that too, is defined, literally, and “means verbal or written information, submitted by an alderman to a department, concerning a factor that is relevant to departmental decision-making”) but city employees have to log it when aldermen give their opinions.
While the move may send a message to the voters who overwhelmingly elected Lightfoot as Chicago’s 56th mayor, Lightfoot’s swipe of the pen sends an equally strong message to aldermen that change is in store.
Lightfoot’s allies may embrace the change, and the rest of the “good government reforms” she promises are on the way, while veterans may see the gesture as combative, and a kick-start to a modern round of council wars.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky