Members of the City Council's Progressive Reform Caucus and unions affiliated with the Service Employees International Union joined forces this week to introduce a measure that would ask voters in November whether Chicago's airports should be managed by an elected board rather than the mayor and his appointed aviation commissioner.
The move — which representatives of the Chicago Department of Aviation called a "backwards approach" — caught the attention of members of the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, which has long been at loggerheads with the mayor over how to reduce the racket.
"This idea has huge potential," said Helen Rosenberg, one of the group's leaders.
The group has long complained that Emanuel shut residents out of the debate over the impact of the $8.7 billion O'Hare Modernization Program, which sent hundreds of flights over areas of the Northwest Side. North Park, Jefferson Park, Edgebrook, Edison Park and Norwood Park are among the neighborhoods that previously heard little or no jet noise before an east-west runway opened in October 2013.
"This could be something we could favor if it includes citizens and is transparent," Rosenberg said. "We would also ask how this would improve the quality of life for our residents."
Emanuel has refused the group's demand that he reconsider his staunch support of the expansion of the airport, which he has repeatedly said is needed to ensure that Chicago continues to attract the business travelers and vacationers — along with their fat wallets — that help drive the city’s economy.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said changing the law to replace mayoral control of the airport with an elected board could address a number of airport management issues that have arisen during Emanuel's tenure, including jet noise.
In 2015, more than 4 million complaints about noise were filed with city officials. In the first three months of 2016, complaints rose 77 percent from the previous year.
The Emanuel administration has "ignored for many, many years" the issue of jet noise, Waguespack said.
Al Rapp, a leader of the coalition, said the proposal intrigued him because an independent airport authority might be able to block the contracts set to be awarded to build a sixth and final east-west runway at O'Hare.
The coalition sees the airport's diagonal runways as the last, best chance to reduce the roar of jets over the Northwest Side. But Emanuel has refused to reopen the diagonal runway closed on the east side of the airport in August.
The diagonal runway on the west side of the airport is set to be closed in 2019 to make way for the final runway called for in the expansion.
"We may collaborate with the unions on this," Rapp said, noting that any alliance would have to be approved by the group's membership. "It is very interesting, that's for sure."
A statement from the city's Department of Aviation said ending mayoral control of the airport and replacing it with an "untested political process" would be a "backwards approach" that would threaten the progress made at O'Hare and Midway under Emanuel's leadership.
The measure to put the question to voters was introduced Wednesday to the Council with 27 co-sponsors, records show. While the advisory referendum would not have the force of law, it could help supporters pressure the Council to take action, supporters said.
Tom Balanoff, the president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, said he expected the advisory referendum question to be approved by a "large margin" if put before voters.
“We think the people being able to vote on the authority is a good idea, not a bad idea,” Balanoff said.
Airports in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are managed by independent, but not elected, boards.
Balanoff said an elected board could help resolve labor unrest at O'Hare that culminated in a one-day strike March 31 and put an end to "questionable contracting decisions."
Gerald Morrison, special assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, said union officials planned to reach out to groups like the anti-noise coalition and offer to work together on the push for an independent airport board.
"It is a better approach on any number of issues," Morrison said.
The SEIU and its affiliated unions have been fighting Emanuel since 2012 when the mayor replaced 300 union janitors with non-represented employees in an effort to save money.
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