Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, spent part of her first day in office attacking the unwritten tradition of “aldermanic privilege,” in a move meant to fulfill her campaign promise of reducing corruption in city government.
After her historic inauguration Monday as the city’s first openly gay and first black female mayor, Lightfoot signed her first executive order to end what she called “the worst abuses” of a privilege wielded by the 50 aldermen who make up the Chicago City Council. Aldermanic privilege ― or more formally, aldermanic prerogative ― gives the local lawmakers veto power over zoning and permits in their own wards. Technically, it’s more of a custom since it isn’t codified in city law.
The executive order came soon after Lightfoot’s powerful inaugural speech, where she called for Chicago to come together to address problems in public safety, education and “integrity.”
“For years, they’ve said, ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform,’” the new mayor declared. “Well, get ready because reform is here.”
Her executive order directs city departments to stop deferring to aldermanic wishes “in their decision-making practice unless expressly required by the Municipal Code of Chicago.” Each city department must send a report to Lightfoot within the next 60 days describing its decision-making process, including areas when it has deferred to aldermanic prerogative “as a matter of custom or practice.” These reports must also address what the departments are doing to follow Lightfoot’s order.
The mayor stressed that aldermen will still have a voice in departmental decision-making, but not veto power.
“These practices have gone on here for decades. This practice breeds corruption,” Lightfoot said at her inauguration, facing some aldermen in the audience directly. “Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest; it’s in the City Council’s own interest.”
Supporters of aldermanic privilege describe the tradition as a way for residents to have a say in what goes on in their own neighborhood. But critics have widely considered it the perfect example of Chicago’s government corruption.
The use of aldermanic privilege came up most recently when federal authorities charged Alderman Edward Burke, the city’s longest-serving council member ever, with attempted extortion earlier this year for allegedly threatening to slow approval of remodeling plans for a Burger King in his ward unless his law firm was hired for tax work. Burke has denied wrongdoing and won reelection soon after he was charged.
The mayor’s order did please some council members, including Alderman Michele Smith.
“While Aldermanic input is critical in representing the interests of communities, we are working to prevent politics from influencing departmental decisions,” Smith said in a release. “By signing this executive order, Mayor Lightfoot will ensure that all residents receive the same level of quality service from their government.”
Others, such as Alderman Anthony Beale, said the mayor’s executive order “means absolutely nothing.”
“It’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” Beale told the Chicago Tribune.
In any case, the order is just a beginning. Voters wait to see how the new mayor, a former prosecutor and head of a police oversight board who won all 50 wards in an April runoff election, follows through with her promises to check the city council. Lightfoot said in a statement that Monday’s move is “the first step in a comprehensive ethics reform package to reform the way government works in Chicago.”