Chicago City Council punts on a measure that would allow the city to sue gang leaders

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a press conference on Feb. 4, 2021. On Wednesday, Chicago City Council members once again delayed a vote on her controversial proposal to allow the city to sue gang leaders. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a press conference on Feb. 4, 2021. On Wednesday, Chicago City Council members once again delayed a vote on her controversial proposal to allow the city to sue gang leaders. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago City Council punts on a measure that would allow the city to sue gang leaders

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to allow the city to sue gang leaders was delayed Wednesday by the mayor’s own Public Safety Committee chair – in a move that signals the controversial measure did not have enough votes to pass.

Public safety chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro, along with Ald. Anthony Napolitano, used a parliamentary maneuver to push the ordinance at least until the council’s next meeting, which is currently scheduled for March. Lightfoot, who proposed the measure five months ago, said it would help the city address staggeringly high levels of gun violence by allowing the city to go after the assets of gang members for alleged crimes.

There was no debate or objection to the delay.

After the meeting, Taliaferro said he delayed the ordinance to give his colleagues more time to understand it, but he denied the move was because the ordinance lacks enough support.

The ordinance has faced significant pushback, including from the ACLU of Illinois, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, progressive aldermen, and a group of more than 50 civil rights attorneys who warn it could spur costly lawsuits against the city.

Critics also argue the ordinance would only worsen conditions for Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods, arguing that Chicago’s gangs are largely made up of poor and desperate young men who don’t have assets to seize. Critics say the city could instead end up punishing the uninvolved family members of gang members who may share a car or home together.

Lightfoot, who dubbed the ordinance the Victims’ Justice Ordinance, has remained steadfast in her support for the idea, saying it’s what residents in areas with high rates of violence want to curb gun violence. The proposal states that “a minimum of 50 percent of funds obtained by the city” would go towards “the support of victims of, and witnesses to, street gang-related activity.”

Despite the delay on one of the most significant agenda items of the day, aldermen took action on a slew of other measures, including approving a stalled appointment to lead the office that investigates serious cases of police misconduct.

COPA chief officially appointed as permanent leader after long delay

Andrea Kersten was finally confirmed to lead the Civilian Office of Police Accountability Wednesday after her permanent appointment to the seat has been delayed by aldermen who oppose her for actions she’s taken as interim chief of the agency.

Some of the council’s most conservative members have taken issue with the fact that, under her watch, COPA released a report that included the name of fallen police officer Ella French for her role in a botched raid of a woman’s home.

French was killed during a traffic stop months after the report was finalized, but some aldermen said Kersten should have redacted her name out of respect to French’s family. Kersten said she didn’t have the legal authority to do so.

“Ms. Kersten has refused to admit that she made a mistake in releasing the report in seeking a suspension of a fallen police officer,” Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd Ward, said. “Now Ms. Kersten seeks a position to judge police officers who make split second life or death decisions … what sort of message does Ms. Kersten’s appointment send to our Chicago police department?”

Earlier this year, 20 aldermen signed a letter, led by Ald. Nick Sposato, in opposition to Kersten’s appointment. Tabares was one of them.

Several aldermen who signed that letter spoke at Wednesday’s council meeting – including Alds. Andre Vasquez, George Cardenas, Sue Sadlowski Garza and Jeanette Taylor – to say they’ve changed their minds after speaking directly with Kersten, with several saying they realized Kersten was just “doing her job.”

Several others spoke in support of her appointment.

“We have to have a system that we are honestly looking at the facts of what happened and to not approve her appointment because of that issue I think would speak volumes of our character and I think would speak volumes to how we want people to perceive the actions and work of COPA,” Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Kersten has apologized publicly numerous times – to French’s family and to the Chicago Police Department as a whole – and is now backing a change to city ordinance that would give COPA the authority to redact the names of officers who died in the line of duty from misconduct reports.

Her appointment was approved 31 to 14.

Millions in police misconduct settlements

The council also approved $2.8 million in legal settlements related to police misconduct.

However, Ald. Raymond Lopez moved to delay one of the largest proposed payouts — for $1.7 million — in the case of Mia Wright. Wright was dragged out of her car by police outside the Brickyard Mall during a weekend of protests and looting in May 2020.

A bystander videotaped the incident on a cell phone and posted it to social media. Four other people were in the car with Wright, and are also part of the settlement.

Conservative aldermen on the council had previously pushed back against the settlement, as they do with most police misconduct settlements. On Wednesday, Lopez “deferred and published” the measure, pushing it to the next City Council meeting.

Aldermen did approve three other police misconduct settlements, including $1.4 million for the mother of a toddler who was killed by a car fleeing police in South Shore. The City of Chicago spends tens of millions of dollars a year on settlements, judgments and attorneys’ fees related to police misconduct.

Bold move to keep a grocery store in Garfield Park

Aldermen took a rare step to keep one of the last remaining grocery stores in the Garfield Park neighborhood.

Aldi closed its location last year after 30 years there, leaving thousands of West Siders without a nearby grocery store for affordable, fresh produce or other staples.

The city now plans to purchase the vacant property so that it can control who moves in next, and is vowing to lure a new grocer to the neighborhood, according to department officials.

The move potentially represents a new strategy on behalf of the city to combat food deserts. Some Chicago aldermen have pushed back on the measure, saying they’d like to see a written policy to ensure this strategy is implemented evenly across the city.

E-voting coming to the council

Chicago aldermen also approved a measure that will finally push them into the 21st Century with the way they cast votes for or against legislation. The move comes nearly 50 years after Congress authorized a switch to electronic voting.

A resolution passed Wednesday allows for an electronic voting system to be used instead of the City Clerk reading off every alderman’s name and asking for a yay or nay vote. The system will give aldermen one minute to cast their vote.

The earliest the council would use the system is at its full meeting in March. In the meantime, aldermen will be trained on and do a “dry-run” on the new system, according to the Clerk’s office.

City Council also moved to give nearly $10 million in taxpayer money to the Chicago Park District to upgrade park facilities and other amenities. The money comes from special taxing districts, known as TIFs. The largest allocations are increases to two previously approved projects – fieldhouse renovations at Clarendon Park in Uptown and a new fieldhouse in Little Italy at Addams/Medill Park.

And aldermen Wednesday strengthened the city’s oversight on outdoor street festivals and block parties. The city will now require organizers to submit their applications three weeks in advance instead of two. They also increased event fees based on when the application is submitted – incentivizing organizers to submit earlier in order to pay less.

Aldermen also spent roughly the first two hours of Wednesday’s meeting honoring Secretary of State Jesse White, who will not seek reelection after two decades in office. Two Democratic candidates looking to replace him were in attendance – Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, and City Clerk Anna Valencia, who White has endorsed in the race. Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is also running in the Democratic primary to replace White.

Correction: This story previously misidentified the author of the report released by Kersten’s office. That report was authored by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA.

WBEZ city government reporter Becky Vevea contributed reporting.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.