Aldermanic prerogative is the grease that oils the machine - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Aldermanic prerogative is the grease that oils the machine

Image courtesy John J. Kim via the Chicago Tribune

The federal allegations against Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, have helped fuel the conversation about the power of aldermanic privilege.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 8, 2019.

Chicago news is consumed with the alleged misdeeds of two of our most powerful elected officials, Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, and Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th. And although it’s easy to focus on the salacious details, we know this is much bigger than blue pills and attempted Burger King shakedowns. Unfettered zoning and permitting power in the hands of aldermen perpetuates segregation, creates disparities in how we invest in communities and invites political corruption.

Aldermanic prerogative — the custom in Chicago’s City Council to allow each alderman to direct zoning and permit decisions within his or her ward — is part of City Hall’s DNA. Several reports and articles last year sounded the alarm and demonstrated how aldermanic prerogative violates civil rights, constrains affordable housing development and upholds the clear color lines in Chicago, prompting both a federal complaint and legislation in an attempt to curb the abuse.

Aldermanic prerogative — the custom in Chicago’s City Council to allow each alderman to direct zoning and permit decisions within his or her ward — is part of City Hall’s DNA.

It would be a mistake to think that outcomes will improve if a few bad actors are criminally charged. We cannot indict our way out of this system; we have to change the conditions that allow it to thrive.

We have heard the promises of vague and modest reforms in light of recently public egregious abuses of aldermanic power, promises that do not grasp the full extent of the problem or needed solutions. Missing is a full-scale revamp of how zoning, planning and community investment should function for the good of the entire city.

We need a collective vision for the city of Chicago that is grounded in racial equity — and it must start with a racial equity impact assessment of our current land use policies. From those findings, a comprehensive citywide plan should be developed — something Chicago has not done since 1966 — that sets clear goals on equitable development and investment, connecting the dots among residential, transit, commercial and open space needs so that all communities can thrive.

Most important, transparent decision-making structures grounded in meaningful community input must be devised and followed. An easy first step is to bring Chicago in line with New York and Los Angeles and reduce the number of mundane municipal decisions that need to go through elected officials.

And yes, reforms must also address aldermanic prerogative.

First, though, we need to correct a myth. The antidote to too much power is not zero power. Aldermanic prerogative doesn’t need to be eliminated but does need common-sense limitations. Community residents and their elected officials should have a say in shaping their neighborhoods. But let’s be clear: When it comes to affordable housing, community input should be in the form of how, not if.

Take the example of the Far Northwest Side 41st Ward. Last year, the alderman rejected a proposed development with 30 units of affordable housing located just steps from the CTA Blue Line — and en route to countless O’Hare International Airport jobs.

The reason for the rejection? According to the alderman, it was because the residents of his ward indicated that when they “come back home (from work), they want it to be their sanctuary.” In Chicago, that was enough of a reason. The alderman simply asked the chairman of the Zoning Committee, Ald. Solis, to indefinitely delay the deal. Solis, following the unwritten protocol of aldermanic prerogative, did just that.

In a city with a deficit of 120,000 affordable units, we cannot afford to operate this way.

Chicago’s next mayor and council must lead a citywide commitment to transparent, equitable investment across all communities.

Patricia Fron is executive director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and Kate Walz is vice president of advocacy at the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law

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