Official Who Greenlighted Botched Little Village Smokestack Implosion Set to Lead Buildings Department

A still image from a video taken of the demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant smokestack, April 11, 2020. (Alejandro Reyes / YouTube)A still image from a video taken of the demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant smokestack, April 11, 2020. (Alejandro Reyes / YouTube)

One of the city officials Chicago’s watchdog said could have prevented a plume of dust from enveloping Little Village in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — but did not act — is set to lead the city’s Department of Buildings.

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The City Council’s Zoning Committee unanimously advanced on Tuesday Mayor Brandon Johnson’s nomination of Marlene Hopkins to permanently replace former Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet, whom Johnson fired last month. A final vote by the Chicago City Council is set for Wednesday.

During the more than hourlong confirmation hearing, Hopkins was not asked about what she did as the top official from the city’s Buildings Department charged with overseeing the implosion of the smokestack at the former Crawford Power Plant in Little Village.

In fact, neither the smokestack implosion nor Hopkins’ role in allowing it to take place were mentioned during the confirmation hearing.

Top officials appointed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s recommendation to punish Hopkins, who was responsible for approving and overseeing the implosion of the smokestack.

Hopkins, who has worked for the city for more than 25 years, faced no discipline. As the first deputy commissioner for the Department of Buildings, Hopkins earns $175,000 annually, according to the city’s database.

The former Crawford Power Plant is now a warehouse leased by Target.

More than a half-dozen union officials, faith leaders and a Cook County judge were permitted to speak at length to the committee about Hopkins’ commitment to public service from a location in the City Council chambers typically reserved for city staff testifying or fielding questions from alderpeople.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Leonard Murray, who oversees the court’s housing division, said Hopkins wielded an “iron fist in a velvet glove” and said she was “overqualified” for the appointment, which he said was “overdue.”

Hopkins has been promoted twice under two different mayors since the botched implosion on April 11, 2020.

Several alderpeople praised Hopkins fulsomely for always being available to assist them or their staff members, and said she had been overlooked and passed over by previous mayors.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward), the powerful chair of the City Council’s Rules Committee, praised Hopkins for her “flawless career” and said she had come to rely on her expertise.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), the chair of the Finance Committee, said she “jumped for joy” when Johnson announced Hopkins’ appointment, calling her the “right person for the right job.”

Only Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) hinted at the shadow of the implosion darkening Hopkins’ appointment in a brief exchange.

“Are you perfect?” Moore asked.

“No,” Hopkins replied.

“But you strive for perfection?” Moore responded.

“Always,” Hopkins said.

The inspector general’s probe found Hilco at fault for failing to ensure that the implosion did not endanger the health of the public and faulted officials for not taking steps to ensure a plan to protect the surrounding neighborhood was in place and would be followed.

In addition, city officials did not do enough to ensure that those who lived near the former power plant were informed about the planned implosion with enough time to object or take steps to protect themselves or their families, according to the full report.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez, whose 22nd Ward includes Little Village, told WTTW News he had not decided how to vote on Hopkins’ appointment.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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