Will Chicago compromise limit power of aldermen? – Chicago Tribune

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Will Chicago compromise limit power of aldermen? – Chicago Tribune

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Chicago Tribune

Jul 21, 2021 4:24 PM

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Aldermen will retain much of their cherished power over awarding business signs and deciding how sidewalks get used in their wards, under a compromise with Mayor Lori Lightfoot approved by the City Council Wednesday.

The deal, which was approved overwhelmingly by aldermen, came after the City Council blocked Lightfoot’s attempt last month to centralize the authority over signs and sidewalks at City Hall.

The mayor’s original plan to allow businesses to put up signs and apply for uses of public sidewalks without full City Council approval turned into a fight in June over aldermanic prerogative, the long council tradition of aldermen having a great deal of power over such decisions within their wards.

Lightfoot tried to include the provision allowing the Department of Business Affairs to approve such applications in a broader pandemic small business recovery ordinance, arguing entrepreneurs need less bureaucratic red tape to help them as the city reopens.

But the council stripped it out by a 25-24 vote and passed the rest of the package. It’s the latest chapter in Lightfoot’s ongoing fight with the council over her efforts to curtail aldermanic prerogative.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, arrives for the City Council meeting on July 21, 2021.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, arrives for the City Council meeting on July 21, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

So instead, Lightfoot and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly this week announced a compromise that would allow the local alderman to conduct the initial review of proposed business uses of the public way.

Under the compromise, if the alderman objects to the proposal and the Department of Business Affairs supports it, the application would go through the usual City Council application process. So the council would presumably follow the long tradition of follow the aldermen’s lead on rejecting the plan.

In cases where the alderman and Business Affairs both support the business application, the city would immediately issue the permit, skipping the long process of the council needing to approve the plan.

In a statement, the Lightfoot administration said the “vast majority” of such applications would not need council approval under the revised rules, and Lightfoot framed the compromise as a win for businesses.

“In order to truly recover from this pandemic, we must boldly reimagine the way we do business here in Chicago,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Speed is absolutely key to this recovery, meaning that the quicker we issue licenses and permits, the quicker our economy is able to bounce back from this crisis.”

Reilly also backed the deal.

“As the alderman with the most public way use permits within my ward, I understand the importance of speeding up this process and I am proud to support this compromise that will deliver the process improvements that thousands of small business owners desperately need while preserving the local alderman’s role,” he said in a statement.

The mayor has insisted her business sign proposal is not meant to strip aldermen of power, simply to speed the application process. But aldermen clearly don’t agree, as their vote to strip out the sign language was the mayor’s first City Council defeat. Lightfoot has been taking aim at the tradition of prerogative since before she took office.

But aldermen have opposed her efforts, arguing they know better than City Hall bureaucrats what’s appropriate on particular blocks in their wards.

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

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