Aldermen power through Lightfoot's emergency moves

On May 11, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city has expanded COVID-19 testing, opening six new test sites. The city had chosen sites "based on community testing needs."

South-Side Ald. David Moore wants to know: How did the city identify needs?

"I didn't understand why it wasn't in Auburn-Gresham," which his 17th Ward covers, he said in an interview. Moore said that the area is "among the highest" in reported COVID-19 cases.

"That's why I put a letter out" to the mayor, Moore said, asking: "What are the criteria . . . for selecting the test sites?"

Moore's not alone. Other aldermen have been clamoring for more pandemic-response information from the administration since March—when, as we reported previously, Mayor Lightfoot fired off an emergency executive order that gave her administration sweeping budgetary and procurement powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon after, however, the mayor decided to have the City Council OK her expanded powers.

In April, the administration circulated a draft of a proposed emergency powers ordinance (EPO). It contained many of the same powers conferred by the mayor's March executive order, but it added a couple of whoppers: It provided extensive financial relief to beleaguered concessionaires at O'Hare and Midway airports. And it let city contractors bypass strict disclosures about ties to city officials and other economic conflicts of interest.

The administration dropped those two measures from the final ordinance, which the City Council passed with a 29-21 vote in an April 24 videoconference meeting. (Although it resurrected the airport relief in a separate ordinance proposal.)

The mayor's hard push to get the EPO approved left some aldermen dissatisfied with the administration's ongoing pandemic actions, in which they feel they should have a say.

Aldermen's frustrations were evident at a council budget committee meeting three days before the EPO passed the full council. Of the committee's 34 members, 33 were present. Nine more non-committee aldermen took part.

The committee met via videoconference to consider only one agenda item: the mayor's EPO. The discussion went on for almost four hours.

Aldermen fought the proposed EPO over two main issues. One was appropriation authority: The EPO lets the administration spend millions of dollars without the usual council approval.

"As a council, I believe that we should have the ability to appropriate those dollars—and that not be strictly an executive decision," said 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, explaining his EPO "no" vote in the full council meeting.

Another issue that aldermen felt the EPO should address: racial equity.

Some aldermen have repeatedly said that the administration's pandemic-related expenditures to date—in terms of equipment and services, and of minority contractors—have neglected black and brown communities that COVID-19 has hit the hardest.

"I think [the expenditures] should be where they're needed most: in the black community," 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts told the budget committee.

While the EPO gives the mayor power to make million-dollar contracts, aldermen wanted guarantees that minority vendors would get those contracts.

Moore said he wanted those guarantees up front. Otherwise, he said, when there's "this push to do everything in a hurry," the city's more likely to award contracts to whomever it can get the soonest—overlooking minority and local vendors.

Moore was one of 19 alderman who signed an April 20 letter to the mayor, offering seven amendments to the draft EPO. One of the amendments said that "priority should be granted to women and minority business enterprises (W/MBEs)" in the awarding of pandemic-related contracts "at or below $500,000 in value."

Had the administration embraced the proposal around W/MBE contracting, Moore said, he "absolutely" would have supported the EPO.

In spite of his no vote on the EPO, Moore said his "relationship has been great" with the Lightfoot administration.

Twenty-fifth Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez—another EPO no vote—has had the opposite experience.

"What I have seen is less and less communication with aldermen"—and "even less communication with aldermen who disagree with" the mayor, Sigcho-Lopez said in an interview.

When it comes to "the emergency powers ordinance, or talk about the plan to reopen the economy . . . well, we have major conversations," Sigcho-Lopez said, but "there's rarely any dialog."

Other aldermen, however, have praised the administration for its willingness to take feedback during the pandemic.

Speaking of the proposed EPO at the April budget committee meeting, 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly said, "The original proposal was, I thought, a major overreach." Reilly said the EPO in its original form would have forced aldermen "to watch the administration engage in unilateral decision-making."

After the council raised "legitimate concerns," the mayor apparently "arrived at the same conclusion," Reilly said.

"I'm glad we have a mayor who takes time to listen," Reilly added.

So, which is it? A mayoral administration that embraces feedback and is, as 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack has said, "responsive to aldermen"? Or a mayor by whom, according to 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, aldermanic input is routinely "maligned, ignored, and dismissed"?

When it comes to the mayor, "the relationships of committee chairmen are different," said Sigcho-Lopez. (Waguespack heads a committee, while Reilly is council president pro tem.) Those aldermen, he believes, are "naturally and organically having conversations with the administration" on an ongoing basis.

"What about the other aldermen who are not chairs of committees?" Sigcho-Lopez asked. "We represent communities that are deeply affected by this crisis. And we have not seen that same level of dialog and commitment" from the mayor's office.

But, in what he sees as favorable development, Sigcho-Lopez was picked as one of the 10 members of a new body: the COVID-19 Budgetary and Contractual Response Working Group.

The working group, introduced in April by budget committee chair Dowell, was a concession to aldermen seeking at least a modicum of scrutiny over pandemic response spending.

The working group has started to meet regularly, letting aldermen grill the mayor's budget and public health staff about the administration's weekly budgetary and contractual activity reports on pandemic expenditures.

So far, Sigcho-Lopez said, the working group has "been asking for more and more details on the contracts" awarded by the administration for pandemic measures, "to make sure that we allocate resources fairly and adequately."

He cautioned, though, that the working group has no authority; it can only ask questions of, and make recommendations to, the Lightfoot administration.

The mayor's EPO is set to expire on June 30 at the latest.

A version of this piece appeared originally in the Chicago Reader.