Officials question order to curb aldermanic privilege
by KEVIN GROSS
Some Northwest Side aldermen questioned Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first executive order aimed at curbing "aldermanic prerogative" – or the longstanding tradition that gives aldermen power of what can and can’t happen within their wards, mostly in matters like permits, licenses or zoning.
"The purpose of this order is to identify where departments, not required by any law, defer to ‘aldermanic prerogative’ and to direct departments to cease each and every such practice," the order states. It also calls for city departments to submit a report of any instances their department deferred to aldermanic privilege within 60 days and any changes that each department has made in addressing the matter.
"The order preserves the critical ability and responsibility of aldermen in their official representative capacity to provide meaningful input and information when relevant to the decision-making practices of City departments," the order states.
Alderman Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s new floor leader, said that the order "allows for the aldermen to have input, a voice, but not a veto (over permitting and licensing matters). So right now any alderman could arbitrarily say ‘we’re not going to have this processed, we’re not going to have this permit allowed.’"
"When public officials cut shady backroom deals, they get rich, and the rest of us get the bill. When some people get their property taxes cut in exchange for campaign cash, they get the money, and sure enough, we get the bill. … No official in the city of Chicago, elected or appointed, should ever profit from his or her office," Lightfoot said in her inauguration speech last month. Lightfoot said that the order "does not mean our aldermen won’t have power in their communities. … It simply means ending their unilateral, unchecked control over every single thing that goes on their wards."
Some of the aldermen questioned whether Lightfoot’s order, which could give more power over matters such as liquor licenses into the hands of unelected city officials, was a move in the right direction.
"I don’t want some bureaucrat making decisions on somewhere that’s not their ward. Is it going to be a commissioner?" Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said. "I know my ward better than someone elsewhere would."
Alderman Anthony Napolitano’s (41st) chief of staff Chris Vittorio said, "Someone has to make the decisions. So whether it’s a commissioner in a department or an alderman, someone has to be held accountable. How do you hold accountable a commissioner that’s appointed? These (aldermen) are elected officials, and we have many instances, most recently in the past election, where we had two aldermen that didn’t even make the runoff specifically because they used their prerogative to go against the wishes of their ward with development, and they were held accountable."
Chris Poulos, a spokesman for Alderman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) echoed a similar sentiment.
"Rather than creating more democratic processes at ward level, with things like community zoning, they address aldermanic prerogative by centralizing power in the seat of the mayor, which we might see as problematic," he said. "Our way of addressing prerogative is to democratize, rather than centralize power."
A spokesman for Alderman Samantha Nugent (39th) declined to comment and Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th) could not be reached for a comment.
Vittorio said that the matter of prerogative itself is difficult to legislate. "The hard part is, you’re talking about an unwritten rule of prerogative. This is just a courtesy that aldermen extend to each other."
Sposato called into question the wording of the executive order.
"I don’t understand (the order) or what exactly they are trying to do. Nobody understands and we’re trying to figure it out," he said.
Aldermanic prerogative became a hot-button issues this year when the FBI put their sights on veteran Alderman Ed Burke (14th) for allegedly delaying or threatening to "play hardball" with renovation permits for a fast-food restaurant in his ward unless the restaurateurs would hire his private law firm to represent them on tax matters.
Burke was federally indicted on more than 10 charges including racketeering and attempted extortion on May 31. Lightfoot has called on the veteran alderman to resign.
Sposato admitted that it was "a bad year for aldermen" regarding legal scandals, but noted that some pending cases, such as former 1st Ward Alderman Joe Moreno’s charge for allegedly filing a false police report of his vehicle being stolen, or former 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Munoz’s allegations of spousal abuse, were not related to financial matters, while other pending cases such as Burke’s may result in no conviction.
"When they say ‘stop corruption,’ what corruption are they talking about?" Sposato said in an interview before Burke’s May 31 indictment.
Poulos said, "Obviously there are a lot of things that need to be changed in City Council to address some of the major issues that come along with aldermanic prerogative, like zoning benefiting developers. It (this order) doesn’t necessarily do anything to address the sort of developer-driven policy that comes out of city hall."
Villegas said that the executive order will not end aldermanic corruption, but that it’s a step in the right direction.
"Now, I know a lot of my colleagues are upset about that (order), but remember that’s an executive order," Villegas said. "So throughout the process, lets say six months, a year, two years later it’s not working (the order), as a legislator they could introduce an ordinance that directs an agency or a department to do ‘x, y, z’ to make sure that whatever it is that they’re encountering is rectified."