CITY HALL — An effort to give voters angry about jet noise around O'Hare and Midway airports a voice at the ballot box took a detour Tuesday with some deft political maneuvering that could block the question.
By law, Chicago is allowed three citywide referendums on the November general-election ballot, and the Council has already approved two — on gun control and education funding.
Residents on the Far Northwest Side want another referendum on whether the city should adopt an independent airport board to oversee O'Hare and Midway — a measure embraced by residents fighting airport noise and backed by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), even as it would undercut the authority of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A third question proposed Tuesday, which would nudge out the airport question, would ask voters: "Should the City of Chicago work with the federal government and the State of Illinois to prioritize significant new investments in important infrastructure?"
Several aldermen were incredulous that the city should need to seek guidance on such a clear-cut issue.
"The games have to stop," said Ald. David Moore (17th). "Of course, everybody wants to fight for transportation money. We're doing it."
"If we're going to put things on the ballot, it should be a provocative question," added Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), urging a referendum on "something that is more pressing."
The vote for passage deadlocked at 7-7 — sparking some parliamentary debate.
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), chairman of the Rules Committee considering the matter, insisted it was "up to the chairman" to determine what to do with it after aldermen deadlocked on passage. She planned another meeting immediately before this month's City Council with another committee vote, and "we'll see which way it goes."
Waguespack objected: "We have a failed vote here. We can't have another vote."
Members of the Council's Progressive Reform Caucus said Harris violated parliamentary rules to recess a meeting in the middle of a roll call.
Last month, a proposed referendum on a city identification card for undocumented immigrants ran into complications. Then, Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who has worked to block controversial referendums before for Emanuel, put forth another on the city divesting funds from fossil fuels. Yet Moore abruptly backed off on that this week after even activists with the environmental group Chicago 350 opposed it. He was not at Tuesday's meeting.
Instead, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) submitted his ordinance on the city seeking state and federal infrastructure funding. He called it a transportation issue.
In testimony before the Rules Committee, Burnett framed it as a matter of "latent discrimination or unconscious discrimination," saying areas traditionally near public housing had systematically been deprived CTA stops. He pointed to his pursuit of a new CTA "L" stop at Division and Orleans streets, as well as one at Damen Avenue and Lake Street, and said he didn't want his 27th Ward Tax Increment Finance districts plundered to pay for them.
"Everybody else should chip in," Burnett said, insisting that the referendum would provide leverage in that state and federal lobbying.
Yet Ald. David Moore called it "unacceptable," adding, "When we do this maneuvering, it hurts democracy.
"Has it not been a priority?" Moore asked of lobbying for state and federal funding. He wondered aloud if the Council was approving these referendums for "kicks."
"I don't think we do them for kicks," Harris responded.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) decried these "last-minute substitutions" for what he called "feel-good referendums." According to Sawyer, "99 percent of the people would vote in favor" of Burnett's proposed referendum.
Harris, however, said it was "hitting the dot with a nail" and inviting the public to weigh in.
Yet the committee declined to pound that nail, at least for the moment. The seven aldermen voting in favor included Harris, Burnett, Brian Hopkins (2nd), Marty Quinn (13th), Michael Scott (24th), Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Michele Smith (43rd). The seven voting against included Sawyer, Moore, Waguespack, Ramirez-Rosa, Napolitano, Sophia King (4th) and Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th).
"I like that it wasn't a one-sided event," Napolitano said. "I like that it came down to neck and neck." He said he'd continue to push for a referendum on an independent airport board for his constituents, calling it "one of our main issues." That measure, however, is under the jurisdiction of the Aviation Committee, which does not currently have a meeting scheduled before next week's City Council.
Harris declared the committee in recess and repeated her inclination to recall the vote immediately before next Wednesday's Council meeting, but opponents said they would seek a ruling with the Law Department on whether that would be legal.
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