Lightfoot's council power push: beggars, blank checks, and speed bumps

In an interview with Dave Glowacz on the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky Show, Ben and Dave listen to audio from the first-ever videoconference meeting of the full Chicago City Council—where some aldermen resisted an emergency powers ordinance proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Dave explained that the ordinance allows the mayor's chiefs to reallocate funds within the city's 2020 budget; enter into million-dollar contracts; lease and occupy property at no risk to the owners; and give vendors two months to make financial disclosures—all without City Council approval. It applies to actions taken only to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Dave described how the mayor had, via an executive order a month earlier, bestowed the powers onto herself—then evidently decided to have the City Council ratify them. But, Dave said, the administration had to push the proposed ordinance through three council meetings for approval.

Dave played a recording of Ald. Jason Ervin (28), who repeatedly questioned mayoral control of leftover federal funds—the spending of which he felt aldermen should dictate, not react to.

"My constituents didn't send me down here to be a beggar," Ervin said in the meeting.

Ben pegged Ervin as one of the former "Rahm loyalists" who are now "adapting to new roles in the City Council" as voices of mayoral opposition.

Next in the audio montage was the West Side's Ald. Emma Mitts (37). Mitts was concerned, Dave said, about the pandemic disproportionately affecting blacks in Chicago. She suggested that the mayor hadn't spent enough emergency dollars in her community—yet the mayor was asking aldermen for more spending freedom.

"I see dollars being spent," Mitts said in the meeting. "I think that it should be where it's needed most: in the black community."

The fact that Mitts spoke out about the proposed ordinance, Ben said, "showed how tenuous the ground was" for the mayor's proposed emergency powers.

"The city of Chicago has a horrible record when it comes to distributing its money," Ben said.

Also citing inequitable spending in one of Dave's clips was Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35).

"We have sought to put into writing guarantees that an equity lens will be applied to federal emergency dollars," Rosa said in the meeting. "That reasonable request was maligned, ignored, and dismissed."

Rosa added that the administration's claim that it needs emergency powers for quick pandemic-related purchases was "simply false" and "a lie created at the last minute."

In another audio clip, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25) argued that even an emergency doesn't justify the surrender of spending authority to the mayor.

"This is not the time to leave blank checks to anyone," he said in the meeting. "The people of Chicago did not vote for unilateral decisions; they voted for accountability and transparency."

The remarks of Sigcho-Lopez led Ben to muse that the "completely exaggerated and distorted" myth of aldermanic prerogative has been "successfully used by Lori Lightfoot to gain even more power."

In another audio clip, an administration lawyer responded to Ald. Michele Smith (43), who'd asked why the administration simply couldn't seek council approval for ongoing pandemic-related purchases.

The lawyer said that would "run the risk of bringing a whole bunch of small . . . administrative speed bumps before the City Council on a regular basis."

Ben characterized the lawyer's answer as "Shut up and give the mayor the power."

Finally, Dave and Ben listened to an exchange between Ald. Ray Lopez (15) and Mayor Lightfoot—wherein Lopez tried to make a speech about how his "integrity, motives, or character have been assailed, questioned, or impugned," presumably by the mayor. The mayor denied Lopez's move, and a council vote backed her up.

"She shoulda let him talk," said Ben, calling Lightfoot "a virtual Mayor Daley"—referring to Chicago's first Daley, who would turn off council critics' microphones.

At least, Dave observed, Lopez could get his peers to vote on Lightfoot's censure of him—so maybe "there's an element of democracy present" in the council.

Length 6.1 minutes standard, 54.2 minutes premium.

Music: "On Top of the World" by texasradiofish
(Copyright 2015. Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license.)

Standard audio:

Premium audio: