CHICAGO – Mayor Lori Lightfoot punished her enemies and rewarded her friends in a City Council reorganization that was the first test of her political influence.
Despite a municipal code authorizing the city council to reorganize itself, mayors gave this power to the newly elected mayor, who was given carte blanche to dictate the number of committees and handpick committee chairs.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas may not get the same opportunity.
Finance Committee Chair Scott Waguespack (32nd), Contracting Oversight and Equity Chair Jason Ervin (28th) and Rules Committee Chair Michelle Harris (8th) are working behind the scenes to reorganize and strengthen the council before a new mayor and council are in place.
Waguespack denied that the motive is self-preservation for committee chairs who sided with Lightfoot and now fear being stripped of those positions by Johnson or Vallas.
It’s about making the changes in structure and rules necessary to turn a council that has long been a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors into the independent watchdog Chicago voters want and deserve, Waguespack said.
“I wouldn’t mind having finance left after what we’ve done to try to clean it up. People want to see it continue to move in that direction. But it’s not really about that. It’s more about to strengthen the council to become stronger”, said Waguespack.
“Both of these candidates have said they want to see the council elect its own committees. On Vallas’ website, it says, ‘Give the city council to elect its own leaders.’
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Waguespack said there is a “fairly open dialogue” going on behind the scenes with mayors who endorsed the top four in Round 1 of the mayoral race: Vallas, Johnson, Lightfoot and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.)
“People have been calling and asking if they could have certain committees, and we haven’t started putting committees in yet. People were kind of asking around about who’s going to be where and what people want,” Waguespack said.
“We’re just asking for input from councillors, first about possible rule changes for the next term. And then the second thing was just looking at the possibility of organizing the council as a group to look at how we’re going to try to just be a stronger council, which many have said.”
Waguespack acknowledged that the selection of committees and leaders could not be voted on until after the inauguration in mid-May.
But he hopes before an agreement is reached on the number of committees, a potential line-up of leaders, reins in direct introductions and other possible rule changes.
Why wait until after Lightfoot was defeated to claim the council’s rightful power?
“We were actually working on it before she became mayor. But no one could come together and decide how to do it. … There was a lot of arguing back and forth,” Waguespack said.
“No one ever stood up and said, ‘Can we all get together and try to figure this out?'” No one.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a March 23, 2022 City Council meeting at City Hall. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Ervin, who also chairs the Council’s Black Caucus, was one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken supporters. He had even tried to narrow the field by warning that with seven African-American candidates and a reduced and divided black vote, the African-American community risks “losing everything.”
Ervin made no excuses for waiting until now to stand up to whoever wins the April 4 runoff.
“Why not now? I can’t talk to before. I can talk about the present and the future. It’s about the Council empowering itself. We don’t need to seek permission to have a conversation,” Ervin said.
“This presents a unique opportunity. We sit down and have a conversation. Who knows what’s going to happen?
Harris could not be reached for comment.
Vallas and Johnson both favor a more independent council, one that elects its own leaders with input from the new mayor.
Vallas wants to create a “truly independent” council budget office with the power to scrutinize spending at all local governments, including Chicago Public Schools.
Vallas is not the first to call for structural changes to revive the council.
Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who was openly criticized and then forced out by Lightfoot, has launched a nonprofit, “Re-Imagine Chicago,” to do the same.
“I go back to the phrase ‘learned helplessness.’ The mayor manages the city council. There is no good outcome where a single person basically decides everything,” Ferguson said.
“You need that critical tension. We need a city council that actually has the expertise and that works together through a structure that actually puts the mayor to the test and doesn’t let things just fall through the cracks.”