Aldermen blocked a Wednesday vote on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds, prompting the mayor to utter an expletive caught on a hot mic during the meeting.
“You’ve got to be f---king kidding me,” the mayor said after her staff informed her that Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) had joined forces with Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) to prevent a vote on the measure, which had been the subject of intense criticism for a nearly week, sources told WTTW News.
The effort to delay the vote, technically called a defer and publish, automatically sets a vote on the measure for the next City Council meeting, which Lightfoot quickly set for 3 p.m. Friday.
Lightfoot’s remarks came immediately after Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward) finished marking Black History Month by paying special tribute to Black Puerto Ricans and their role in American history.
Rodriguez Sanchez told WTTW News that Lightfoot texted her after the clip of the profanity went viral on Twitter and told the alderman — a frequent critic — that the expletive was not prompted by her remarks during the Black History Month tribute but “was about something her staff brought to her.”
Progressive aldermen and groups have blasted Lightfoot for a week about her decision to use $281.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds to cover the cost of salaries and benefits for Chicago Police Department officers. Instead, the money would have been better spent directly helping Chicagoans endure the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic, they said.
Lightfoot called that criticism “just dumb” and said her decision saved Chicago taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars during the peak of the pandemic’s first wave.
During a Friday afternoon hearing before the City Council’s budget committee, the progressive groups found an unlikely ally in Burke, who called the spending “highly suspicious.”
Burke, Lightfoot’s longtime nemesis, peppered Budget Director Susie Park with questions.
“For you to suggest that fully one-third of the entire appropriation for the patrol division, $281 million, is attributable to perhaps three categories during a limited period of time defies any reasonable explanation,” Burke said.
During the 2019 mayoral campaign, Lightfoot capitalized on the scandal swirling around Burke to defeat 13 other candidates and cruise to victory by promising to root out the corruption at City Hall she painted as personified by Burke, the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history.
Burke faces a 14-count indictment that alleges he repeatedly — and brazenly — used his powerful position at City Hall to force those doing business with the city to hire his private law firm. Burke has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
The City Council approved Lightfoot’s plan to spend $1.2 billion in federal funds designed to help the city cover the cost of responding to the coronavirus pandemic in June. But nine aldermen voted no because the mayor declined to block the funds from being used to reimburse the Chicago Police Department for responding to the pandemic.
Rules imposed by the federal government allowed $470 million from those funds that flowed to Chicago as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to be used to reimburse the city for personnel costs incurred fighting the pandemic, according to city budget officials.
Officials determined that federal funds could be used to cover the salaries and benefits earned by officers performing wellness checks on residents, assisting airport security officers charged with screening passengers for COVID-19 and providing security at the McCormick Place field hospital and COVID-19 testing sites for the first two months of the pandemic.
While those funds could have been used for direct assistance to residents and businesses, that would have blown open a hole in the city’s operating fund because of the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Park said.
Officials also used $300 million from the first relief package to fund the city’s public health response, $100 million to help businesses and $377 million to help businesses operating out of Chicago’s airports.
The political scuffle is the latest skirmish in the long-running fight over whether to reduce the budget for the Chicago Police Department amid calls for reform after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
When aldermen reconvene on Friday, they are expected to approve Lightfoot’s plan to spend $68 million in unspent federal COVID-19 money from the relief package approved in March 2020
Aldermen will also consider a plan backed by the mayor to spend $261 million from the relief package approved in December, including a proposal to earmark $80 million for a new round of rental assistance grants for 5,000 residents. The city has already sent $94 million in rental assistance to Chicago residents.
Wednesday’s hot mic moment was not the first time that Lightfoot has been caught during a City Council meeting expressing a private opinion.
In July 2019, Lightfoot called Patrick Murray, the former second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police a “clown” during a City Council meeting. Afterward, Lightfoot she was “sorry that I said that out loud” but declined to apologize for the substance of her remarks.