Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Aldermen keep their control on zoning

Johnson hasn’t acted on Lightfoot order aimed at ward power

- By Jake Sheridan

On her last weekday in office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered a parting shot to Chicago’s City Council: a barrage of 11 executive orders, one of which took aim at the longtime City Council tradition of aldermen having nearly complete control over developmen­t in their wards, which she saw as a root of corruption.

Lightfoot demanded recommenda­tions on zoning changes made to the powerful Zoning Committee by the city’s lead zoning bureaucrat be shared publicly before hearings, as a way to show residents when aldermen opted not to take the advice.

Nine months into his term, however, Mayor Brandon Johnson and his aldermanic allies have not implemente­d the changes Lightfoot ordered. Johnson’s decision to so far to ignore Lightfoot’s executive order highlights his disinteres­t in taking on “aldermanic prerogativ­e.”

The order from the recently defeated, lame duck Lightfoot echoed the anti-corruption rallying cry that won her the office four years prior, and followed several earlier, mostly unsuccessf­ul attempts she made to rein in council members’ power during her single term. But that last quack is no longer reverberat­ing at City Hall.

Lightfoot heralded the executive order as part of “essential” zoning reform to help the public understand how the council aids or impedes developmen­t. She lamented her buzzer beater policy’s apparent on-the-vine demise in a January appearance on former Cook County Clerk David Orr’s

Politics 101 podcast.

“It’s those kinds of things that people need to rally behind and demand accountabi­lity to make sure that processes are transparen­t, that we’re governing as a democracy in the sunshine, in the daylight, and not behind closed doors,” she said.

Council members leading the Zoning Committee under Johnson pushed back against the value of Lightfoot’s late attempt to give Chicagoans a clearer understand­ing of the committee’s process. They say they appreciate her effort to add transparen­cy, but think Lightfoot’s executive order was misplaced and inappropri­ately made.

But Better Government Associatio­n policy analyst Geoffrey Cubbage argued Lightfoot’s executive order could give residents a better foothold to vet decisions the Zoning Committee makes on controvers­ial changes by building a public record of the zoning administra­tor’s expert opinions.

Continuing to simply trust aldermen to act in residents’ best interests “requires a lot more faith,” Cubbage said.

Aldermen have long opposed attempts to curtail prerogativ­e, arguing they know what’s best for their wards.

Lightfoot overcame that reluctance in late 2021, when she built a council coalition to push through a Far Northwest Side affordable housing project over the objections of local Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st.

Urging his colleagues to join him in voting against the plan, Napolitano gave a defense of prerogativ­e in which he warned aldermen “while you’re advocating for a great cause, you’re taking away your right to decide what happens in your ward tomorrow.”

The planned developmen­t near Cumberland Avenue and Higgins Road along the

Kennedy Expressway has since stalled due to financial problems and changes to the housing market, but the council vote to pass the project stands as a landmark moment in Chicago’s troubled history with affordable housing segregatio­n.

But the difficulty of any fight over aldermanic prerogativ­e and the need to curry favor with aldermen is certainly no secret to Johnson as he pushes forward on big ticket items from his broad progressiv­e agenda, including his Bring Chicago Home efforts to raise taxes on property sales over $1 million to fund a greater response to homelessne­ss that many developers stiffly oppose.

Johnson spokespers­on Ronnie Reese confirmed the executive order “from the waning days of the previous administra­tion” has not been put into place, but said “its transparen­cy aspects are well received” and it is being reviewed among other zoning policy changes. The new mayor remains

committed to “a collaborat­ive approach” to the zoning process, Reese added.

On the campaign trail, Johnson seemed to reject Lightfoot’s intense focus on aldermanic prerogativ­e, suggesting power shouldn’t be overly concentrat­ed at City Hall.

“Not one person alone can transform this city,” he said to a question about the entrenched tradition. “I’m a collaborat­or, and alderperso­ns who have been elected by their community have a rich understand­ing of the nuances and the variances that exist in their communitie­s.”

Reese said a decision on the policy hasn’t been made in part because “the Zoning Committee has been without a long-term Zoning chair” since Johnson took office.

Johnson initially chose ally Ald. Carlos RamirezRos­a, 35th, for the seat. But Ramirez-Rosa resigned the post in November after facing bullying allegation­s centered on purported physical intimidati­on and political

strong-arming against colleagues as the council considered a nonbinding ballot referendum question on the city’s sanctuary status for immigrants.

When speaking to Orr, Lightfoot accused RamirezRos­a of “putting the kibosh” on her executive order. She did not respond to Tribune requests for comment on the situation.

Ramirez-Rosa denied axing the policy to the Tribune, arguing that only the mayor can enforce policy affecting the city zoning administra­tor. But he said he thought it was “inappropri­ate” for Lightfoot to use executive orders to make wide-ranging policy changes “in her final hours in office.”

“The voters elected a new mayor, and if she felt it was important, she should have issued it during the early days of her administra­tion,” he said.

The policy change would bring additional transparen­cy, but wouldn’t fundamenta­lly reshape the

zoning process while adding work for a bureaucrat­ic team that’s stretched thin, Ramirez-Rosa said.

By the time the recommenda­tions would be made public under the policy, aldermen and their communitie­s would have already undergone a long process to vet and tweak the proposals in question, he added.

His focus now is on finding other ways to make sure the zoning process is inclusive, engaging and transparen­t with policies in his own ward such as a requiremen­t to post bigger signs at potential developmen­t sites displaying renderings and multilingu­al informatio­n, Ramirez-Rosa said.

If Lightfoot’s thwarted dream of curbing aldermanic prerogativ­e had further concentrat­ed zoning power in the mayor’s office, it would have only made developmen­t less democratic, he argued.

“I don’t think we should have decisions made behind closed doors by unelected bureaucrat­s,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Acting Zoning Chair Ald. Bennett Lawson, 44th, questioned whether the public would learn much from the zoning administra­tor’s basic recommenda­tions: “recommende­d,” “not recommende­d” and “no objection.”

The recommenda­tions fail to capture the nuances of zoning changes up for considerat­ion, he said. Making them public could give too much weight to the recommenda­tions, which aren’t typically heavily considered by aldermen and developers at the end of an often arduous vetting process, he said.

Lawson called Lightfoot’s goals of consistenc­y and transparen­cy laudable, but said Johnson and the Department of Planning and Developmen­t could better achieve them in the zoning process at earlier points with other reforms. He praised Johnson’s shift of focus away from aldermanic prerogativ­e.

“He has maybe learned the lesson that there are ways to pursue transparen­cy without demonizing the City Council,” Lawson said.

Though the Zoning Committee order came as she had one foot out the door, Lightfoot also made earlier attempts to gut the tradition of prerogativ­e. Her crusade started with her first official act as mayor: an executive order that directed city department­s to not defer to aldermanic wishes in decision-making unless required by law.

Johnson could rescind the Zoning Committee executive order with one of his own, Cubbage said. By letting it stay on the books without enforcing it, the mayor risks future orders becoming “vestigial” and ineffectiv­e, he said.

“There’s not a hard process that needs to be followed, but there is a process that needs to be followed,” he said.

 ?? ANTONIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE ?? Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, left, joins then-mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson in campaignin­g at the CTA’s California Blue Line station on Feb. 15.
ANTONIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, left, joins then-mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson in campaignin­g at the CTA’s California Blue Line station on Feb. 15.

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