Aldermanic body probes mayor's pandemic spending, but its future is unclear

The city of Chicago's spending on the COVID-19 emergency—about $31 million to date—has been held to account by a little-known aldermanic working group. But its future is uncertain.

In late June, the Chicago City Council week approved a budget appropriation amendment that enables the city to spend an expected $1.13 billion in federal COVID-19 response funds.

That appropriation followed an April council action that granted emergency powers to Mayor Lori Lightfoot so that the city could allocate unbudgeted money to COVID-19 relief. But some aldermen balked on giving up their budgetary oversight.

To appease council members wanting more control of the mayor's pandemic spending, budget committee chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3) formed a 10-member body that has continually examined COVID-19 spending—and has questioned administration officials on the specifics.

To constitute the body—formally called the COVID-19 Budgetary and Contractual Response Working Group—Dowell appointed Ald. Daniel La Spata (1); Ald. Sophia King (4); Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25); Ald. Jason Ervin (28); Ald. Carrie Austin (34); Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36); Ald. Samantha Nugent (39); Ald. James Cappleman (46); and Ald. Maria Hadden (49).

"They represented people who have a wide range of perspectives on the [Lightfoot] administration," Dowell said in an interview. And she chose aldermen "who had been on the council for an extended period of time" as well as "newcomers."

The working group has met almost weekly, via videoconference, since late April. Administration officials, including Budget Director Susie Park and Chief Procurement Officer Shannon Andrews, have regularly appeared to field questions.

Working group member La Spata called the body "a really positive experience."

Calling himself "someone who voted against [Lightfoot's] emergency powers," La Spata said in an interview that he saw the working group as way to ensure "accountability and transparency" around COVID-19-related expenditures.

As an example of the working group's impact on pandemic spending, La Spata cited the city's multiple contracts with hotel operators—to provide non-hospital housing for quarantines, isolation, health care workers, and first responders.

Within the working group, La Spata said, he asked about the hotels' occupancy rates—because the city was, he said, "paying for a room block on a nightly basis whether we're using all of those rooms or not."

La Spata said that after his questions uncovered the "roughly $50,000 a night that we were losing on empty hotel rooms," some of the city's hotel contracts were revised or canceled.

"To actually see the impact of your feedback," La Spata said, is "what government is supposed to look like."

Another member found the working group less effective.

Something about which he asked administration officials early on, Sigcho-Lopez said, was where the city would house infected persons who are victims of domestic violence.

During the pandemic, Sigcho-Lopez said, "we've seen a 10 percent increase" in the number of such victims. "So do we have a plan if it increases even more? Where are we gonna locate them?"

"The fact that I don't have an answer," Sigcho-Lopez said, made him doubt the working group's efficacy.

Asked about members' unanswered questions, Dowell indicated that she had staff of different city departments attend each meeting "to speak about their work"—so that aldermen's concerns would be addressed eventually.

Much of the working group's ability to probe the administration's ongoing pandemic spending has come from OBM's weekly reports that detail pandemic expenditures. The reports were mandated by the April emergency powers ordinance (EPO).

However, the EPO sunsets on June 30—at which time OBM has said it will discontinue the reports.

La Spata called the reports "an incredible measure, in terms of transparency and accountability—which is why I was sad to know that we're gonna be losing that."

In light of the council's approval of the permanent, $1.13 billion department-level plan for spending COVID-19 federal funds, working group members said transparency is needed now more than ever.

That's partly because detail provided to the council by OBM shows $333 million of the federal funds going to unspecified "ongoing direct COVID-19 response costs."

The lack of clarity, said working group member Ervin, is "still somewhat outstanding."

While "I do understand the need for some vagueness" in the appropriation, Ervin said, "I still think, and many of us think, that still requires some further definition as to what [the $333 million] is going to be" spent on.

Another issue, La Spata said, is ongoing funding of the alternate-care facility that the city set up at McCormick Place.

Thanks to working group efforts, La Spata said, he learned of the huge sum—$54.8 million, according to OBM reports—obligated to McCormick Place. "But we've only spent, I think, about $73,000."

"At what point," he said, "do we readjust that budget obligation? It's something we never got a clear answer on."

Will the working group be around to seek more such answers?

"I have some ideas on how it should continue—if it continues," Dowell said. "I'm gonna sit down with the budget director and have a discussion with her about how we should move forward."

"We just appropriated $1.1 billion," La Spata countered, arguing for the group's persistence. "I think it's worth continuing to bring strong oversight over those dollars."

"I'd like to believe that everyone shares that sense of urgency."

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Daily Line.