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Aldermen Clash Over Allowing Votes on Electing a CPS Board, Using TIF Cash

By Ted Cox | November 13, 2013 2:59pm
 Ald. John Arena says he won't be a "lapdog" and will continue to push for a referendum on an elected school board.
Ald. John Arena says he won't be a "lapdog" and will continue to push for a referendum on an elected school board.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — The Chicago City Council erupted into a debate on Wednesday that one alderman compared to the "fighting for the sake of fighting" debates of "Council Wars."

At issue this time: proposals for an elected Chicago Board of Education and for redistributing Tax Increment Financing funds to city schools.

The debate centered on the longtime council practice of sending legislation unfavorable to the mayor to the Rules Committee, which has been called "where good legislation goes to die." But the argument got bogged down over the use of TIF funds for development, and neither issue was brought up for a vote.

Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and John Arena (45th) called for their proposals, both involving Chicago Public Schools, to be let out of the Rules Committee, citing Rule 41, which allows measures to be moved to the full council for a vote if they're not given a hearing in 30 days.

 Aldermen Scott Waguespack and Bob Fioretti talk before Wednesday's City Council meeting.
Aldermen Scott Waguespack and Bob Fioretti talk before Wednesday's City Council meeting.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"At this time, I'm a little confused," said Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), chairman of the Rules Committee, insisting neither alderman had asked her for a hearing — an accusation Arena later contradicted.

Harris immediately shifted the debate to any available TIF surplus, which Fioretti's ordinance was trying to have sent to government agencies, with about half going to CPS. Harris defended TIFs and their use in economic development, saying, "In my community, I can't afford to give it up."

Several aldermen echoed that, led by Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., who said, "I swear by TIF money. TIF money gives me and my community power."

Arena tried to bring the issue back to the Rules Committee logjam, but added, "At the end of the year, if there's money sitting in the TIF, it's not helping anybody."

Several aldermen said the council has a process of committees and hearings and insisted that be retained. Ald. William Burns (4th) accused the Progressive Reform Caucus, which pushed the procedural move, of creating an "artificial conflict to serve their own political ends."

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a former member of the progressive caucus, accused them of trying to "politicize" the process with an issue 32 aldermen had originally agreed to co-sponsor. He said the aldermen hadn't worked hard enough to build a consensus.

"You have thrown my signature back in my face," he said. "You've squandered this opportunity."

Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) referred to his days in so-called Council Wars, during the Harold Washington administration. He said the council then was "castigated" for "fighting for the sake of fighting" and accused the progressives of trying to "embarrass" their colleagues.

"This debate might be healthy," he added, but he warned of creating a system where "nothing is off limits" and any proposal can reach the floor.

"We would've talked about it if it had been allowed to come before the committee," said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th). "The process should allow for a hearing.

"Let's not talk about the process when we refuse to follow the process," Hairston added. "I say let's talk."

"When we want to have a discussion, we are a joke," added Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th). She said when legislation is sent to Rules, "it goes there to die. That has to stop."

The move to discharge Fioretti's schools TIF ordinance from the Rules Committee failed by a 36-11 vote. Fioretti, Foulkes, Hairston and Arena were joined by Aldermen Joe Moreno (1st), Pat Dowell (3rd), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nick Sposato (36th) and Michele Smith (43rd) in voting to discharge the proposed ordinance from Rules.

Arena then offered to withdraw his proposal, seeking a citywide referendum on an elected Board of Education, if Harris would agree to a hearing. Harris pointedly kept asking him to put a motion on the floor without answering his request. Arena called for his resolution to be discharged from committee, Harris asked that it be tabled, and the council voted 32-15 to do so, in effect leaving it in Rules.

"We're not lapdogs," Arena said afterward. "And I'm not going to step back and be one if that's what's being asked of me."

Arena said he would continue to fight the "old-school way of doing business" and push for hearings on the proposed referendum, adding, "I think we achieved the fact that we are not going to go along just to get along."