Despite Scandal, Chicago Aldermen Delay Decision On Ethics Reforms

Chicago City Hall
Bill Healy/WBEZ
Chicago City Hall
Bill Healy/WBEZ

Despite Scandal, Chicago Aldermen Delay Decision On Ethics Reforms

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It appears Chicago aldermen ain’t quite ready for reform.

The City Council’s Rules Committee on Tuesday held the mayor’s ethics proposals after aldermen took issue to a last-minute change to how zoning matters are ushered through City Council. Emanuel had drafted the ethics reform package following the City Hall corruption scandal that’s ensnared longtime Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward.

Meanwhile, a proposal to livestream City Council committee meetings nearly derailed until the sponsor threatened to use his annual discretionary funds to pay for the streaming equipment himself.

It was an inauspicious day for good-government reformers who have long been clamoring for changes to City Council rules. Despite the push for reform by both Chicago mayoral candidates, and many aldermen themselves, even watered-down proposals met resistance during hearings on Tuesday.

Aldermen: Don’t take away my zoning powers

Emanuel’s ordinance attempted to tamp down on aldermanic privilege — an unwritten rule that gives aldermen sole discretion to decide what gets built in their wards.

Ending aldermanic prerogative has been one of the biggest debate topics this election cycle. In recent years, this zoning authority has provoked numerous lawsuits against the city by developers who allege aldermen have abused their authority to advance arbitrary zoning changes or to hold controversial developments hostage.

And opponents have also argued the unwritten power leads to corruption, because aldermen can unilaterally hold up developments in their wards to extract favors from developers. Allegations that Burke abused his aldermanic power to try and extort a business owner in his ward are at the core of the federal case against him.

The original version of the the mayor’s ordinance triggered an automatic hearing on any proposed zoning change that’s been held for more than 180 days. The new version added a kill clause: If no hearing takes place, the ordinance is considered denied.

Aldermen spent upwards of an hour getting in the weeds on the different types of zoning ordinances that go through the council and on philosophical debates about local control versus centralized city planning.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, has more zoning matters than most of his colleagues. He said the change seemed like a “giveaway to real estate developers.” He said it “empowers those developers to work the colleagues of the committee, knowing that a hearing will be granted at some point in the future.”

“The ordinance is silent on any local process that might exist,” said Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward.

In many cases, a local alderman will have their own neighborhood-based zoning committee that meets with developers after a proposal has been submitted to the City Council. Depending on the size of the development, these meetings can go on for months as developers try to address density and traffic concerns commonly raised by neighborhood groups.

Ultimately, the committee decided to hold onto Emanuel’s reform package Tuesday. It also would have imposed new rules on how often City Council committee chairs can skip voting due to personal conflicts of interest, an issue that was highlighted in a recent investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association.

Earlier Tuesday, a forum hosted by the Tribune Editorial Board, the two mayoral candidates were divided on whether to let aldermen keep their extraordinary zoning powers.

Former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot wants to end the practice. But Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called the subject a “derogatory characterization” of the role of an alderman.

Having been an alderman herself, Preckwinkle, like many at Tuesday’s Rules Committee meeting, argued that constituent services and local issues are the hallmark of the job.

Livestreaming those committee meetings

Also Tuesday, Rules Committee Chair Michelle Harris, 8th Ward, tried to use a technicality to punt on another ordinance mandating that the City Council livestream its committee meetings.

Reilly and Harris got into a heated back-and-forth over the matter. He even offered to use his $1.3 million in aldermanic menu money — cash that aldermen usually use to pretty up their wards — to cover the equipment. Two other aldermen followed suit.

Ultimately, the panel approved the livestreaming proposal, and it now heads to the full City Council for a final vote. It sets a Sept. 30 deadline for the council to comply with the ordinance. Another committee, however, will have to figure out how to pay for it.

Claudia Morell reports on City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @claudiamorell.