Leavitt: In Chicago, a powerful prerogative builds and destroys

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Chicago residents may soon be more aware, now that Ed Burke, for decades the city’s most powerful alderman, has been busted for trying to use it to make big money, according to the feds’ criminal complaint. (Photo by Kate Gardiner)

A unique Chicago city government policy called aldermanic prerogative is probably mysterious to most people, but its abuse could be responsible for many of the things that are wrong with the city.

Chicago residents may soon be more aware, now that Ed Burke, for decades the city’s most powerful alderman, has been busted for trying to use it to make big money, according to the feds’ criminal complaint.

Aldermanic prerogative — also called aldermanic privilege — allows aldermen to crash building projects that need even a small zoning change, without even having to say why. It’s always been a bit too slippery of a subject for people to argue coherently about because it’s a policy, and not a law.

Burke allegedly twisted the arm of a fast-food franchisee trying to get a restaurant remodeled in his 14th ward. In exchange for a driveway permit, Burke’s law firm would get the tax appeal work for all 162 of the guy’s area properties. Burke apparently stretched the privilege, trying to stop a permit that had already been blessed by the building department.

It worked, up to a point. Under mounting pressure, the franchisee allegedly agreed to give the law firm the work, and to sling a $5,600 bonus campaign donation in the direction of a Burke pal. But the hamburger joint guy was cooperating with the U.S. Attorney, so he never actually bothered to sign a contract, and Burke wound up heading to federal court to stand up and tell a judge he wasn’t an extortionist.

The donation was reportedly intended for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s last campaign, but her people say she didn’t take it.

Few city officials anywhere on Earth have a more powerful asset than the prerogative. But this world-class weapon has become a handy and time-worn tool of run-of-the-muck corrupt aldervarmints.

Now, it seems to have brought down Burke, a once-slick operator who may have lost a step or two after haunting City Hall for a record 50 years.

Most of those familiar with the hoary old head of the finance committee, however, won’t believe he’s been subdued until somebody drives a stake through his chest.

The legitimate purpose of the prerogative is to help a locally elected leader protect residents from negative development. Looking around many Chicago neighborhoods, it’s hard to imagine how bad the things were that were refused, if these are the things that were OK.

Who among those living in Chicago can take a short drive, or even walk, down a commercial street without seeing a newish oversized building with windowless sides or hodgepodged construction materials, crammed into a space that had previously had an entirely different — and less intense — use?

Upon gazing at one of these beauties, one might reasonably ponder if quality of development was a less important criterion than price of politician.

The prerogative also gives aldermen a weapon to enforce not-in-my-backyard issues that a North Shore village trustee would kill for. For instance, it can be an impenetrable impediment to affordable housing in some wards, advocates maintain.

RELATED NEWS: Chicago Alderman Burke charged with extortion attempt

A year or so ago, some mouthy far Northwest Side residents rose up against proposed apartment buildings, which would comply with city rules to include at least 10 percent affordable units (instead of paying a fee to get out of the requirement, which happens a lot).

Their protests and statements were at times racially charged. In the face of this noise, 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano reportedly reversed his support for one of the buildings, and proceeded to demand the project be deferred indefinitely, even though it was too far along in the process for even an unwritten rule to work. But it did.

In November, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed a complaint in federal court that maintains cases like the one in Napolitano’s ward show that aldermanic prerogative is used to block affordable housing on behalf of those with race-based fears. A lawsuit forcing the issue may follow.

So it was not a shock that the subject of aldermanic prerogative came up Dec. 11 when the Chicago Housing Initiative sponsored the Mayoral Candidate Forum on Affordable Housing and Equitable Community Development.

When asked, all six attending candidates seemed to back getting rid of the privilege. Dorothy Brown repeated an accusation used at the Shriver Center press conference that the practice represented “a new Jim Crow.” One of the most telling comments came from Amara Enyia, who said that the results of the policy’s use tended to demonstrate “who’s valued and who’s not.”

Police chief-turned-candidate Garry McCarthy sounded like the out-of-towner that he is, complaining that in Chicago, “for anything that’s hard to do, you’ve got to have ‘a guy’ to get things done,” so progress can’t happen without significant change.

“If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

The real question is this: what has Chicago always gotten from aldermanic privilege?

What it’s gotten, to a great extent, is an attempt to preserve segregated communities on much of the South Side and far Northwest Side.

For black South Siders, that has been unacceptable. If they can afford it, they’re moving to integrated neighborhoods, or completely out of Chicago. Between 2000 and 2017, Chicago’s black population dropped 9 percent.

So, more and more, those blacks who are left in Chicago are less likely to be doing well. Many who may be are still hanging on, but they’re sorely tempted to leave.

For a lot of whites in segregated neighborhoods, the segregation has been livable. They buy their houses, protect their neighborhoods from The Other, and sell their houses when it’s time to retire.

They do all right, but they don’t make a killing on their houses as often as North Siders do.

That’s because the demand is limited. After all, if you’re from Manhattan, and you have to move to Chicago for business, are you going to move to a nearly all-white neighborhood like Mount Greenwood on the South Side, or Norwood Park on the North Side? You’re probably going to be looking for a diverse, energized neighborhood like those on the West Side, South Loop or North Side lakefront, where, not coincidentally, property values keep going up.

In the traditionally all-white neighborhoods, that demographic becomes the primary selling point for homes. So homes don’t have to change. They get old. They become more attainable. Non-whites buy them. Now, you don’t even have that selling point you worked so hard to protect.

You would have been better off promoting a more diverse neighborhood.

But that’s your privilege.

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