A sweeping set of changes to city laws governing businesses and workers pushed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot moved closer to reality, despite pushback from some aldermen.
The proposal makes permanent several pandemic-induced changes to city regulations, including a permanent liquor store sales curfew and a cap on fees charged by third-party food delivery apps.
But one proposed change — regarding who gives final approval for business signs, awnings and sidewalk patios — got the most attention from aldermen during a committee meeting Thursday, because it would chip away at a long-standing practice known as aldermanic prerogative.
“The role of the aldermen is being redefined as we sit here today,” said Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward, who ultimately supported the package, dubbed the “ChiBizStrong” ordinance.
A committee of aldermen spent the vast majority of their meeting debating one single page of the 93-page ordinance Lightfoot put forward last month. That page outlines a new process for issuing “public way use” permits, which include things like storefront signs and sidewalk cafes.
Currently, there are several steps, including a requirement that all 50 aldermen vote on an ordinance approving the permit. The new proposal would give the Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection power to issue the permit as soon as the local alderman where the permit is requested gives the green light.
Lightfoot touted the changes as cutting red tape and protecting workers in order to help the city recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the mayor also campaigned on curbing the unwritten practice of aldermanic prerogative, which gives local aldermen power and final say over most decisions in their wards, particularly related to development.
Lightfoot’s Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Rosa Escareno said the plan is not about removing aldermen from the process.
“You know your community’s best, we don’t,” she told aldermen. “The objective here is to save time it takes to get a permit for a small business. It will not remove the important role that the local alderman plays in the public way permit process.”
Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose downtown 42nd Ward encompasses a huge number of businesses, voted against the ordinance and said he’s concerned less about how much input he will have with Escareno’s department and more about what the change to city law would mean in the future.
“While I certainly trust this administration and this Commissioner, this regime, my concern is for future city councils and future mayors that may not have this understanding and working relationship and collaborative understanding,” Reilly said, noting that the alderman would make a non-binding recommendation going forward.
Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd Ward, voted in favor of the sweeping set of changes and said she does not worry about her voice being undermined when it comes to issuing permits for things like signs and sidewalk cafes.
“That input has been honored throughout this entire pandemic, when we actually gave many of these policies a pilot,” Smith said. “I really think that we have had this experience of getting out of our way. And yet, preserving our voice.”
“If there’s only one good thing that comes out of the pandemic, it will be these reforms,” Smith said.
Other reforms in the broad business package got little to no discussion, including a plan to implement a midnight curfew on liquor store sales, which Lightfoot adjusted after aldermen balked at her original 10 p.m. proposal. The changes also provide relief to the cab industry, allow for Tuk Tuks or electric passenger vehicles to operate, and permit restaurants to continue offering cocktails to-go.
The committee voted 15 to 3 in favor of the ordinance. On Tuesday, a companion ordinance that entitles domestic workers to the city’s $15 minimum wage among other worker protections around sick leave passed out of committee. Both still need approval from the full City Council, which is scheduled to meet next Wednesday.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.