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Mayor Brandon Johnson

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson smiles and waves as his first City Council meeting wraps up at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. At the meeting, Johnson placed some city council allies to lead powerful committees.

Pat Nabong

Chicago City Council delays migrant funding but approves new committee structure

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson gaveled in his first council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday. Two of his first orders of business were to restructure City Council committees — rewarding his council allies with key chairmanships – and to address a growing migrant crisis.

Three council members opposed to the city’s plan to dedicate $51 million in surplus funds to the migrant crisis moved to delay the measure, pushing it to the council’s next meeting, which is now scheduled for next week.

Alderpeople approved Johnson’s so-called “Unity Plan” by a vote of 41-9. It reorganizes the council based on Johnson’s vision — a customary process for the council’s first term meeting.

Along with the new council organization comes a new, formal title for council members. The title of alderman has now been retired under the chamber’s formal rules and replaced with alderperson, according to the new mayor’s floor leader, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward.

As his mayoral predecessors have done, Johnson is placing some of his biggest supporters in powerful council positions and removing some loyalists of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, will head the Committee on Finance — the first woman in the history of the Chicago City Council to lead the important committee, Johnson said Wednesday. She replaces Lightfoot ally Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, who assumed the chairmanship after former Ald. Ed Burke relinquished the position following federal corruption charges.

Ramirez-Rosa, who’s also the chair of the council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus, will lead the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, will serve as the chair of the Committee on Budget. Ervin, who chairs the council’s Black Caucus, was a strong Lightfoot supporter, and endorsed Johnson in the runoff after Lightfoot’s February defeat.

In all, there are 20 council committees under the plan — the chairs of which represent a significant block of mayoral allies.

Rewarding allies with committee chairmanships is a long-held mayoral privilege in Chicago, and allows the executive branch to maintain influence over how legislation advances through the council. Lightfoot frequently clashed with alderpeople during her tenure, with some council members suggesting this power should be stripped from the mayor and given to the council.

Johnson’s plan also keeps or places council members who supported his opponent, Paul Vallas, in the runoff race for mayor. Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, whose Southwest Side ward is home to many first responders who voted for Vallas, will lead the Committee on Aviation. And Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, one of the council’s most conservative members, will continue to serve as Chair of the Committee on Special Events.

The current council’s longest-serving member, Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, was approved as the city’s vice mayor, to a round of applause. Under a proposed budget amendment, Burnett would be given a budget for staff to go along with the position – a new perk previous vice mayors haven’t enjoyed, as first reported by Crain’s Chicago. Historically, the vice mayor is a largely ceremonial title granted to a senior council member, who serves as an interim mayor in the mayor’s absence.

While Johnson generally supported council independence on the campaign trail, it became clear earlier this month that he would retain the privilege of picking his own chairs. Those who worked on the structure of City Council committees and leadership, including Ramirez-Rosa, said it was built in collaboration with council members.

Still, some critics said they were boxed out.

“It’s not about the chairmanship. It’s about the process,” said Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, who doesn’t preside over a committee under the new plan and had endorsed Vallas in the mayor’s race. “It’s about that word that we all use, and so many people use it loosely: democracy.”

In late March — days before the mayoral election was decided — alderpeople staked out their bid for greater independence, increasing the number of committees to 28 and choosing their own committee chairs. But the plan was short-lived, with weeks of negotiations and jockeying culminating in the committee structure approved Wednesday.

Funding for asylum seekers

Three alderpeople — Alds. Raymond Lopez, Anthony Napalitano and Anthony Beale — used a procedural maneuver to delay a vote on $51 million in emergency funding to continue aid for asylum seekers to the City Council’s next meeting, which will be Wednesday, May 31.

“When you have people starving for resources every day, and they spent their entire life looking for those resources and can’t get them, but yet we can just find $51 million to throw away — that’s a problem,” Beale said of delaying the vote.

Since August, roughly 10,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago. For weeks, the city has warned it’s out of space and money to support those migrants. The millions in surplus funds is slated to go toward staffing for city shelters, meals, legal services and transportation for migrants. But the funding will only last through June, city officials have warned.

Ald. Jessie Fuentes, 26th Ward, rejected arguments like Beale’s that the city can’t support residents and also migrants, noting the city has been leaning heavily on mutual aid groups to assist recent arrivals.

“We can do multiple things at once,” said Fuentes, who supports the funding’s passage.

Mayor Johnson acknowledged the urgency of the moment, but was still light on details on a long-term plan when reporters pressed him on the issue.

“We’re going to get this matter under control,” Johnson said. “And we’ll put forth a more comprehensive approach as we continue to assess the situation, of course that we inherited from the previous administration.”

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago government and politics at WBEZ.

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