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Aldermen Thu Jul 16 2009

Chicago Journal On Aldermanic Privilege

Aldermanic privilege dictates that the local alderman should be deferred to on all matters impacting his or her ward directly. The tradition is so deeply entrenched that we notice when it fails to prevail: most notably in the Wal-Mart zoning fights in 2005 and the Chicago Children's Museum vote (aka, the Grant Park Privatization vote) in 2008.

Chicago Journal editor Micah Maidenburg has been covering a generally ignored federal court case challenging the constitutionality of this privilege. The case was brought by the owners of the infamous Congress Hotel, which tried to get a permit for a sidewalk cafe. The Congress' workers have been on strike for years as the Congress management refuses to bargain a contract, and the union rightfully feared that a sidewalk cafe would interfere with their right to picket, and generally opposed the plan. Newly elected Alderman Bob Fioretti also opposed the sidewalk cafe, and urged their petition be rejected. A land use decision with wide-ranging political ramifications, as now the privilege seems to be in jeopardy.


Aldermanic privilege and its alleged application at a strike-embattled South Loop hotel were at the heart of a trial that ended Monday in federal court. [Former Alderman and current UIC Poli Sci professor Dick] Simpson said the case "could well be" the first time a plaintiff has challenged the constitutionality of the tradition.

After three days of testimony from 11 witnesses, attorneys representing the Congress Plaza Hotel and Convention Center and the City of Chicago rested their cases and agreed to submit briefs outlining their respective arguments to the court within 10 days.

The trial stems out of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the Congress. The hotel alleged in the suit that Ald. Robert Fioretti, whose 2nd Ward includes the hotel, used his aldermanic privilege to condition issuance of various permits, including those for a rooftop expansion and a sidewalk cafe, on resolution of what's now a six-year-old strike at the hotel.

The background on the relationship with the union:

Because the hotel received Plan Commission approval in June for a rooftop expansion (an approval the commission rejected in January 2008, inspiring the hotel to file a lawsuit in about the matter in Cook County Circuit Court), much of the trial focused on the sidewalk cafe permit the hotel has been unable to get, save for a brief period in August 2006. The hotel's accountant testified that the Congress lost about $215,000 between 2006 and 2009 because it hadn't been able to develop a sidewalk cafe outside its structure at 520 S. Michigan.

Throughout the trial, hotel lawyer Peter Andjelkovich tried to tease out connections between the president of Unite Here Local 1 Henry Tamarin and other union staffers and Fioretti and Fioretti aide Hanah Jubeh, who formerly worked for the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Aldermanic privilege is not necessarily all bad; surely the local alderman has a greater sense of what the community wants and how a zoning change could adversely or positively affect the neighborhood. Not only this, but concentrating decision making with the city, on Commissions and in departments dominated by Mayoral appointments, could take too much power away from the local community and allow the Fifth Floor to remake neighborhoods and communities by overwhelming the local residents with a clumsier city-wide decision making system. That said, giving de facto veto power to a single legislator like some kind of modern urban liberum veto is hardly democratic, either. Just as the filibuster has made the Senate even more conservative than the Founders intended (and they had already intended it to be a conservative body), aldermanic privilege arguably makes the City Council essentially conservative by concentrating the decision making in few hands that are in turn swayed or controlled by moneyed interests.

It is the aldermanic privilege, after all, that allows for the pay-to-play politics so well reported in the Tribune's "Neighborhoods For Sale" series. A developer knows they need only sway one vote--the local alderman's--to get the decisions they need; for bigger matters, they may also need to hire the right attorneys, too. But generally, swaying the alderman means winning approval. With that as the only meaningful regulatory stop, there is a very clear calculus for developers.

The solution must be somewhere in the middle; community control that also allows for a meaningful, city-wide deliberation process, so that there can be a comprehensive approach to development. If aldermanic privilege is enjoined by a federal court, what we will end up with is aldermen who become more clever at telegraphing their support or opposition to such decisions; ultimately, no court can really take the power over development decisions away from the legislature. That power must reside there, or end up with too much executive control over property; and having "independent" commissions make the final determination, while perhaps more a-political, is by definition undemocratic.

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