Vapes, Party Houses, Police Budget: What You Missed At Chicago’s City Council Meeting

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks in Chicago on Aug. 29, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks in Chicago on Aug. 29, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Vapes, Party Houses, Police Budget: What You Missed At Chicago’s City Council Meeting

The full Chicago City Council met virtually again Wednesday for the eighth time since the coronavirus pandemic started, just as one of the city’s most violent summers comes to a close.

Aldermen approved a plan to hold budget hearings for the Chicago Police Department every quarter over the next two years amid public pressure to cut police funding and shift spending to social services. It also came hours after U.S. Attorney General William Barr held a socially distanced press conference in Chicago to declare Operation Legend a success.

“We’re never going to be used as a prop — never,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said of not attending Barr’s press conference. The attorney general did, however, meet with Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown while in the city Wednesday.

“I hope that in the time that the attorney general has spent visiting different locations in Chicago, seeing firsthand the, I think, remarkable work that our police department is doing, and in some instances in partnership with federal agencies that are here in Chicago, that he will be better informed about what the actual realities are here,” Lightfoot said.

There’s little proof that the operation’s surge of 200 to 300 federal agents in Chicago was a major factor in making August a less violent month than July, which had more murders than any July in at least 63 years, according to a WBEZ analysis of police data. Brown, for his part, credited new citywide teams he created with helping bring the numbers down.The number of shootings in August, meanwhile, was still up over last year. And criminologists say it’s too early to say whether Chicago has turned a corner.

The City Council’s new commitment to discuss police funding more frequently also comes after a failed push by one of Lightfoot’s top critics in the council to bring in the National Guard to quell gun violence and looting. Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, said the Police Department needs relief from the 12-hour shifts cops have been pulling during a summer filled with gun violence and civil unrest.

Here’s what else happened at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Aldermen ban sale of flavored vaping products within city limits

Chicago businesses will no longer be allowed to sell flavored e-cigarettes or other vaping products, but aldermen stopped short of banning all flavored tobacco products. The ban takes effect in 60 days.

A measure banning the vaping products passed on a vote of 46 to 4 and had the backing of the mayor, who said the issue is personal to her.

“I’m hearing stories, even from my daughter’s school, of fifth graders who are smoking and using vaping products in the bathrooms of elementary schools,” Lightfoot said. “My father was a two-pack-a-day smoker, for my entire growing-up years. He only stopped smoking because he couldn’t get enough oxygen to breathe. He was on oxygen for the last two years of his life, and I watched him die a slow, painful, miserable death.”

The City Council already made it illegal for people under the age of 21 to purchase tobacco or vape products.

Some aldermen raised concerns about people just going to the suburbs to buy flavored vaping products, which could hurt small businesses. Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, said retailers are already struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Lightfoot said the pandemic makes the matter more urgent because COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people with underlying conditions, including respiratory problems.

Officials crack down on party houses, short-term rentals

Short-term rentals in Chicago through sites like Airbnb and VRBO must now require a two-night minimum stay.

An ordinance put forward by the mayor tightens a number of the rules and regulations for shared-housing rentals. It’s aimed at “bad actors” and “party houses,” said Ald. Michele Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes Lincoln Park where there are a lot of short-term rentals.

Airbnb’s Rachel DeLevie-Orey spoke at a virtual committee meeting last month and urged aldermen to rethink the two-night minimum stay. But the measure passed anyway.

Obama Center’s new neighbors protected from displacement

A sweeping set of anti-displacement measures for the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood passed unanimously after more than a year of discussion and planning with local residents.

The ordinance has several components aimed at maintaining housing affordability in the area next to where the Obama Presidential Center is being built. It also seeks to prevent current residents from being forced out by rising real estate prices.

One measure gives renters the first chance to buy a building from their landlord if he or she wants to sell. The renters would be able to form a tenant’s association and team up with a not-for-profit affordable housing developer to buy the building.

Other elements would give current homeowners access to refinancing and grants to rehab and repair buildings. The ordinance also outlines what the city will do with all of the land it owns in the area, which includes the vast majority of the vacant land in Woodlawn. City officials are committing to putting affordability restrictions on at least 25% of the lots they own.

“This ordinance is not perfect, but it can stop the displacement of thousands of low-income and working class Black residents who live near the Obama Center,” said resident Michelle Williams.

City’s bill for legal settlements grows

Also on Wednesday, the City Council approved four legal settlements involving the Chicago Police Department totalling $6.6 million dollars.

The most expensive case is a whistleblower suit filed by a former news affairs employee with the Police Department who claimed she was retaliated against after she reported verbal harassment. All but one of the cases are allegations of misconduct or excessive use of force.

The city of Chicago has paid out a total of $42 million in legal settlements and fees as of the end of May, a number that includes everything from police misconduct to small insurance claims.

Lightfoot more than doubled the budget for legal settlements in 2020.

Becky Vevea covers city of Chicago politics for WBEZ. Claudia Morell contributed reporting. Follow them @beckyvevea and @claudiamorell.