The Madigan indictment puts a new focus on how Chicago aldermen govern

Danny Solis
Former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis in July 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ
Danny Solis
Former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis in July 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ

The Madigan indictment puts a new focus on how Chicago aldermen govern

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The federal indictment of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan references a large cast of characters — including Chicago aldermen.

So when Mayor Lori Lightfoot read through the 106-page document, she did so with a keen eye on what it says about how the City Council has operated, she later told WBBM.

“You cannot read that indictment, and not have pause about the way in which Danny Solis ran the zoning committee for his own profit and the profit of others in a way that wasn’t just unethical, it was illegal,” Lightfoot said in that interview.

She was referring to former Ald. Danny Solis, 25th Ward, who wore a wire for the feds and allegedly used his power as both alderman and chair of the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards to try to benefit Madigan and himself.

The details of the indictment have renewed the mayor’s push to do away with the unwritten practice of so-called aldermanic prerogative. That’s the long-standing tradition in City Hall that says the local alderman gets final say over decisions in their wards.

It’s not an illegal practice, but on her first day in office, the mayor signed an executive order declaring that the practice led to abuse and corruption. The order also directed city departments to stop deferring to aldermen in decisions that aren’t explicitly required by law.

The mayor has tried to chip away at the practice, by changing how much, if any, input aldermen get over everything from business signs to street permits. But there are many instances where the practice still exists, particularly in zoning decisions.

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, got elected 15 years ago, in part, by promising to change how the previous alderman made zoning decisions. His predecessor oversaw a development boom in the early 2000s in the Wicker Park, Bucktown and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods and took campaign contributions from many of the developers building in the area.

When Waguespack took office, he set up a hyperlocal public process for zoning decisions with formal paperwork and public meetings.

“We cobbled together all the neighborhood groups and put together our own set of rules,” he said. Now, more than a dozen other aldermen have similar community processes.

Though he’s an ally of Lightfoot, Waguespack said he’s not sure going after the alderman’s role in zoning decisions makes sense. After all, the alderman is the community’s representative, and who knows better what should be built in a ward than the local council member?

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, agrees. He’s the current chairman of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards.

“Honestly, this is what the community demands,” Tunney said. “They want the alderman to be their representative.”

Tunney said the tradition of deferring to the wishes of the local council member on decisions in their ward is a practical one.

“We don’t have the bandwidth to know what should happen in another ward,” he said. “I always say there’s a reason why there’s 50 of us. We better know everything that’s going on in our neighborhood.”

And at the end of the day, “we’re held accountable for everything — including the weather,” Tunney said.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, replaced Solis on the Council and said there should be “community prerogative.”

“We need a clear process where zoning matters are not unilaterally decided by the alderman or the mayor, or whatever entity,” he said.

“The way forward is to make sure that we have public meetings and elected officials that discuss these decisions with their constituents in public,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “These behind door deals, this pay to play culture, needs to stop … and it’s not going to be eradicated by changing which elected official is going to make the decision.”

Waguespack said there would be “less shenanigans” if all 50 aldermen had the same set of rules and same process for making local decisions.

The mayor’s current floor leader, Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, tweeted that taking zoning power away from aldermen and their communities would be “a no go.”

Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, said she realized how the concept could get corrupted early on when an existing business came to her office wanting to get a permit to do renovations.

“They brought a check with them to meet with my staff at my public office,” she recalled. “And it wasn’t some secretive thing. It was a very open, honest, transparent transaction for them.”

For the record, Hadden did not take the check. But she said it was clear how the old “Chicago Way” had become ingrained in city government.

But Hadden said Lightfoot’s push to eliminate aldermanic prerogative has led aldermen to push back more in areas where aldermanic prerogative was rarely used, like outdoor special events permits for things like block parties.

“They tried to remove it as a practice and then people got all up in arms, so now we have it in the code,” she said.

Hadden pointed out that there are regulations and rules on the books designed to stop corruption. For example, aldermen are not supposed to accept donations from developers within six months of voting on one of their projects.

“I don’t think that you can eliminate all opportunities for a quid pro quo, because people who want to corrupt the system will find any way to corrupt the system,” Hadden said.

It’s not clear how Lightfoot might try to make changes to the current zoning process in a way that changes the alderman’s role. But with one year left in her first term, she said she plans to take a closer look.

“We have an obligation to do that examination, particularly in light of the range of allegations in that indictment, that suggests that the processes of government were completely subverted for personal gain,” she said.

Becky Vevea covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.