Chicago’s new mayor wants to end aldermanic prerogative

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Chicago's new mayor wants to end aldermanic prerogative

By John Ruberry

Chicago’s rep­u­ta­tion for cor­rup­tion is well-​deserved. Since 1973 there have been thirty-​five mem­bers of the City Coun­cil who have been sen­tenced to fed­eral prison. Likely there will be thirty-​sixth soon as out­go­ing Ald. Willie Cochran pleaded guilty two months ago to a charge of wire fraud.

In Jan­u­ary, Chicago’s most pow­er­ful alder­man, long­time Finance Com­mit­tee chair­man Ed Burke, was accused of extor­tion in a fed­eral crim­i­nal com­plaint. Burke, was has been a mem­ber of Chicago’s City Coun­cil for an astound­ing 50 years, quickly resigned com­mit­tee chair­man­ship but was reelected 14th Ward alder­man fol­low­ing month by a huge mar­gin. As H.L. Mencken famously said, “Democ­racy is the the­ory that the com­mon peo­ple know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Chicago swears in a new mayor, Lori Light­foot, tomor­row. Her elec­tion is being called his­toric, as she will be the city’s first female African-​American mayor and one of the few openly-​lesbian may­ors in Amer­ica. But I view Lightfoot’s stance on alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive, also known as alder­manic priv­i­lege, as more impor­tant as Chicago cir­cles the drain.

Most of those jail­bird alder­men ran afoul of the law because of alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive. The tra­di­tion, as alder­manic priv­i­lege is not cod­i­fied in law, gives Chicago’s 50 City Coun­cil mem­bers strong veto or delay­ing pow­ers on zon­ing changes, issuance of per­mits and licenses – includ­ing liquor licenses – as well as the sale or pur­chase of city prop­erty in their wards.

Let’s use the crim­i­nal com­plaint of Burke as an exam­ple of why alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive is awful. The own­ers of a Burger King in his ward needed a build­ing per­mit, accord­ing to that com­plaint, to ren­o­vate their estab­lish­ment. Burke is accused of demand­ing that the own­ers, in order to receive that per­mit, hire his law firm to rep­re­sent them and to con­tribute $10,000 to the cam­paign fund of Toni Preck­win­kle, the pres­i­dent of the Cook County Board, chair­man of the Cook County Reg­u­lar Demo­c­ra­tic Orga­ni­za­tion, known to out­siders as “the Machine,” and later, Lightfoot’s runoff oppo­nent in the mayor’s race.

While not all alder­man play, to bor­row the term a ward employee used with the Burger King own­ers, “hard­ball” in regards to per­mits and zon­ing and the like, many do.

End­ing alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive is some­thing that Light­foot – who pre­vailed in all 50 of Chicago’s wards and all but 20 of the city’s nearly 2,100 precincts – cam­paigned on. And the mayor-​elect for another day is push­ing this issue. A few alder­man are pub­licly push­ing back, includ­ing one, Ray­mond Lopez, who says some­one like him who has a bet­ter feel of the local scene, will be able to block a street parade of gang­bangers, for instance. Really now? That’s the best you can come up with Ray? These crim­i­nals do what they want any­way. Sheesh.

Light­foot may have to com­pro­mise to get her way on alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive. Zon­ing changes might still end up falling under the sway of alder­men. Even that half-​a-​loaf will be a big improve­ment for Chicagoans and busi­ness own­ers con­sid­er­ing set­ting up shop in the city.

Let’s say you’re a CEO of a retail giant think­ing of expand­ing into mid­west­ern cities. Would you really want to sub­ject your­self or your under­lings to the ille­gal­ity of banana republic-​style extor­tion attempts? Or would you sim­ply skip Chicago and open up out­lets in Mil­wau­kee, Min­neapo­lis, and Cleve­land instead?

Dur­ing the per­mit stand­off the Burger King that was the alleged vic­tim of Burke’s shake­down was able to oper­ate only a drive-​thru win­dow – the din­ing area was closed. That had a severe neg­a­tive effect on rev­enue for the restau­rant and it prob­a­bly meant fewer employees.

It’s an exam­ple of what is known in Chicago as the cor­rup­tion tax.

Alder­manic pre­rog­a­tive hurts Chicago.

On another note, dur­ing her tran­si­tion period Light­foot has not con­fronted Chicago’s biggest prob­lem – the worst-​funded munic­i­pal pen­sion plans of any big city. She largely ignored the pen­sion bomb dur­ing the cam­paign too. On Fri­day the mayor-​elect said that the bud­get short­fall she’s inher­it­ing from Rahm Emanuel is over $700 mil­lion.

Lightfoot’s time as mayor will be a dif­fi­cult one.

John Ruberry reg­u­larly blogs at Marathon Pun­dit.

By John Ruberry

Chicago’s reputation for corruption is well-deserved. Since 1973 there have been thirty-five members of the City Council who have been sentenced to federal prison. Likely there will be thirty-sixth soon as outgoing Ald. Willie Cochran pleaded guilty two months ago to a charge of wire fraud.

In January, Chicago’s most powerful alderman, longtime Finance Committee chairman Ed Burke, was accused of extortion in a federal criminal complaint. Burke, was has been a member of Chicago’s City Council for an astounding 50 years, quickly resigned committee chairmanship but was reelected 14th Ward alderman following month by a huge margin. As H.L. Mencken famously said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Chicago swears in a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, tomorrow. Her election is being called historic, as she will be the city’s first female African-American mayor and one of the few openly-lesbian mayors in America. But I view Lightfoot’s stance on aldermanic prerogative, also known as aldermanic privilege, as more important as Chicago circles the drain.

Most of those jailbird aldermen ran afoul of the law because of aldermanic prerogative. The tradition, as aldermanic privilege is not codified in law, gives Chicago’s 50 City Council members strong veto or delaying powers on zoning changes, issuance of permits and licenses–including liquor licenses–as well as the sale or purchase of city property in their wards.

Let’s use the criminal complaint of Burke as an example of why aldermanic prerogative is awful. The owners of a Burger King in his ward needed a building permit, according to that complaint, to renovate their establishment. Burke is accused of demanding that the owners, in order to receive that permit, hire his law firm to represent them and to contribute $10,000 to the campaign fund of Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board, chairman of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization, known to outsiders as “the Machine,” and later, Lightfoot’s runoff opponent in the mayor’s race.

While not all alderman play, to borrow the term a ward employee used with the Burger King owners, “hardball” in regards to permits and zoning and the like, many do.

Ending aldermanic prerogative is something that Lightfoot–who prevailed in all 50 of Chicago’s wards and all but 20 of the city’s nearly 2,100 precincts–campaigned on. And the mayor-elect for another day is pushing this issue. A few alderman are publicly pushing back, including one, Raymond Lopez, who says someone like him who has a better feel of the local scene, will be able to block a street parade of gangbangers, for instance. Really now? That’s the best you can come up with Ray? These criminals do what they want anyway. Sheesh.

Lightfoot may have to compromise to get her way on aldermanic prerogative. Zoning changes might still end up falling under the sway of aldermen. Even that half-a-loaf will be a big improvement for Chicagoans and business owners considering setting up shop in the city.

Let’s say you’re a CEO of a retail giant thinking of expanding into midwestern cities. Would you really want to subject yourself or your underlings to the illegality of banana republic-style extortion attempts? Or would you simply skip Chicago and open up outlets in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Cleveland instead?

During the permit standoff the Burger King that was the alleged victim of Burke’s shakedown was able to operate only a drive-thru window–the dining area was closed. That had a severe negative effect on revenue for the restaurant and it probably meant fewer employees.

It’s an example of what is known in Chicago as the corruption tax.

Aldermanic prerogative hurts Chicago.

On another note, during her transition period Lightfoot has not confronted Chicago’s biggest problem–the worst-funded municipal pension plans of any big city. She largely ignored the pension bomb during the campaign too. On Friday the mayor-elect said that the budget shortfall she’s inheriting from Rahm Emanuel is over $700 million.

Lightfoot’s time as mayor will be a difficult one.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.