City Council approves emergency powers ordinance

City Council approves emergency powers ordinance

Mayor Lori Lightfoot | Sun-Times file

The proposal to give Mayor Lori Lightfoot extraordinary spending and contracting authority to respond to the coronavirus pandemic was approved by a 29-to-21 vote.

By a roll call vote reminiscent of Council Wars, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday got the expanded spending and contracting authority she says she needs to respond on a dime to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two days after a handful of aldermen called it a “power grab” and used a parliamentary maneuver to temporarily block it, the City Council easily approved the mayor’s ordinance by a vote of 29 to 21. That’s the same roll call produced repeatedly during the 1980’s power struggle known as Council Wars that saw 29 mostly white aldermen thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

Prior to the final vote, several aldermen pleaded with their colleagues not to relinquish their role as a co-equal branch of government charged with appropriating city funds.

They argued Lightfoot alone should not be allowed to decide how to spend the avalanche of federal stimulus money pouring into Chicago.

“What we need is accountability. … We cannot go back to the time when we had one mayor overseeing everything and a rubber stamp” City Council, said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

“We can no longer go back to the time when unilateral decisions” by the mayor gave Chicago a “horrific parking meter deal.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said Lightfoot has “unilateral control” over Chicago Public Schools and teachers had to strike to get the pay raise and benefits they deserve. She has “unilateral control over demolitions” and it resulted in the “disastrous” smokestack demolition in Little Village.

“This is supposed to be a democracy,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said his West Side constituents did not elect him to “be a beggar.”

“I believe we should not only have a voice, but a vote” in how federal money is spent, Ervin said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was the only aldermen to speak in favor of the ordinance. He credited Lightfoot for making substantive changes to an ordinance.

With those changes, including a June 30 expiration date, aldermen are “not sitting in the trunk anymore” but “riding shotgun” on how more than $500 million will be spent, Reilly said.

The outcome was never in doubt. The ordinance had breezed through the Budget Committee by a vote of 23 to 10.

Full Council approval was assured, particularly after Lightfoot abruptly adjourned Wednesday’s meeting and tried to isolate and vilify the dissenters as “shameful,” “selfish” grandstanders who were jeopardizing public safety.

“Of course, let’s have a robust debate. That’s what democracy should be about. But, dear Lord, in the middle of a pandemic where, every day, life and death are hanging in the balance, enough with the selfish political stunts,” she said.

Lightfoot said she needs the extraordinary spending and contracting authority to obtain the personal protective equipment and other materials Chicago desperately needs.

She doesn’t have time to call the City Council into session with 48 hours’ notice.

“When we are — literally every single day — competing for, not just the supplies for our health care workers and our first-responders, but literally tests that we need to be able to expand the testing across the city, we don’t have 48 hours. We barely have four hours. If we delay, we lose,” Lightfoot said Thursday.

Still, the mayor’s decision to expand and extend the emergency powers she granted herself by executive order has triggered a furious backlash from aldermen reluctant to relinquish any more power than Lightfoot has already stripped away from them.

To avoid a City Council rebellion in the middle of a pandemic, Lightfoot agreed to put a $1 million limit on the emergency contracting authority and give the City Council’s Budget Committee weekly summaries of emergency spending and contracting activity.

She agreed not to waive the required economic disclosure statement, but gave contractors a 60-day grace period to submit those statements. And most importantly, she agreed to let the extraordinary emergency spending and contracting powers expire June 30.

That is, unless Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady makes an earlier “written determination that the threat to public health posed by COVID-19 has diminished to the point that this ordinance can be safely repealed.”

The mayor also agreed to stipulate “any and all” monies spent, borrowed or transferred under the ordinance would be used only for the city’s response to COVID-19.

Lightfoot has categorically rejected the suggestion she is using the pandemic to consolidate power. With city spending on the pandemic response expected to rise $150 million by June, the mayor has simply said she doesn’t have time to mess around.

“The reality is, if you want to have the regular cadence of City Council where we brief aldermen, then we have the committee hearing, then we have the City Council—that’s probably more like six days. In a pandemic, we don’t have that kind of time,” Lightfoot said.

“Anything large, substantive — now that we have the Zoom [virtual] structure to be able to conduct committee meetings and City Council meetings — we’re gonna be bringing those things to the aldermen … as we would in any other circumstance. But we continue to need the flexibility to move in minutes or hours, not days.”

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