On Jan. 3, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) — the Chicago City Council’s longest-serving alderman and former chair of the powerful Committee on Finance — was charged with attempting to extort a Burger King franchisee, delaying the permits to renovate a location in Archer Heights in order to pressure them to hire his law firm for handling their property tax appeals.
While Burke has since stepped down as the finance committee chair, he continues to serve as alderman, and he is still running for re-election. But the city’s political landscape is not as placidly business-as-usual, with some West Side political figures wading into the sea of reactions and critiques that has been created in the wake of the bombshell indictment.
A number of elected officials and mayoral candidates called for ethics reforms designed to avoid abuses of power, but the proposal presented by Amara Enyia, the executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, is so far the most sweeping yet.
She called for banning aldermen from working other jobs while in office, giving the mayor and the Office of Inspector General power to investigate aldermen without restrictions, audit and review no-bid contracts to see if they violate any laws, and move some “executive and administrative functions” to city departments.
She also said that, in her capacity as the head of Austin Chamber of Commerce, she heard many business owners complain that they felt pressure to contribute to aldermen in order to get licenses and permits — something that, she argued, is especially damaging to small businesses.
Much of what the aldermen can do is a matter of conventions rather than anything legally binding. When a City Council votes on an issue that affects one ward in particular, the approval of local aldermen isn’t, strictly speaking, required. With few exceptions, however, the council tends to follow the alderman’s wishes. Most of the city service requests tend to be handled through ward offices, as do resident complaints. Aldermen have been known to intervene to either speed up or delay permit applications.
The aldermen also control aldermanic menu funds— just over a $1 million in revenue given to each aldermen each year to cover the cost of some local infrastructure projects. Out of West Side alderman, only Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) gives residents any say in how that money is spent.
Aldermen who chair committees control what gets voted on. Since every ordinance and resolution must clear the committee before going to full council, a chair holding up a legislation means that the committee, let alone a full council, never has a chance to vote on it. While there are legal procedures to dislodge an ordinance from a committee, it requires a majority vote.
The powerful finance committee that Burke once chaired includes Ald. Michael Scott (24th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald Emma Mitts (37th). According to an analysis by the Chicago Reporter, all West Side aldermen received campaign contributions from him—although the article points out that Burke has donated to several aldermen who have opposed him.
When the indictment was announced, Enyia issued a statement on her website calling for Burke to resign as alderman and for all candidates and elected officials with links to Burke to ‘immediately cut ties with his office.”
The only other West Side mayoral candidate still in the race, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th), had not issued a statement on the matter as of Jan. 13, and his spokesperson did not respond to calls seeking comment.
During the Jan. 12 One Chicago for All candidate forum, candidate Willie Wilson didn’t mince words, saying that aldermen like Burke “need to resign, shut up and get out of the City Council.”
Through his spokesman, Tom Bowen, Ervin declined to comment on the matter. Mitts’ office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
According to the Chicago Tribune, mayoral candidate Gary Chico shared some of Enyia’s ideas, calling for the ban on second job and ending aldermanic prerogatives. Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot called for the prerogative to be heavily curtailed, as well as for stronger conflict-of-interest rules and term limits.
In a press conference held Jan. 7, the Chicago Progressive Caucus, which includes Taliaferro, called for the city’s Workers Compensation program to be taken out of the jurisdiction of the finance committee and put under control of the city’s Law Department.
They also called for “an immediate forensic audit” of the program by an independent outside counsel, and for changes to Rule 14, which requires aldermen to recuse themselves from voting on anything where they would have a conflict of interest. Under the current arrangement, the aldermen don’t have to specify why they are recusing themselves.
The Progressive Caucus is proposing requiring that the affected aldermen file a written notice explaining why they are recusing themselves ahead of the meeting where the vote would take place. The aldermen would also be required to be “physically absent from all debates, hearings and votes on said action.”
The Progressive Caucus also demanded that Rule 36, which specifies that aldermen select and appoint committee chairs, be “followed to the letter.” In practice, the positions usually go to whoever the mayor selects.
Enyia told Austin Weekly News that, while the Progressive Caucus proposals were a good start, she believed that the city should go further.
She held the Jan. 8 press conference in the parking lot of the Burger King at the heart of allegation against Burke—the same Burger King outside of which teenager Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.
Surrounded by her campaign staff and supporters, Enyia described allegations against Burke as symptoms of a deeper, city-wide problem.
“In many cases, business owners expressed that, without buying influence, they weren’t able to get things,” she said. “There are many administrative functions that [should] not be in the hands of the aldermen.”