Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, newly elected alderman of the 33rd Ward, squeezed into the corner of a City Hall elevator, grinning and clutching a Starbucks cup. Others piled in only to disembark a few seconds later on the second floor, where dozens lined up to enter council chambers for the first meeting of Chicago’s legislature presided over by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Inside the chambers on the morning of Wednesday, May 29, reporters set up in the press box. Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times flitted around in an ivory blazer with her tape recorder in hand and brown leather bag hoisted on her shoulder. The Tribune‘s John Kass ambled through the gallery. Suddenly, much of the press corps swarmed someone on the corner of the council floor.

“They must be talking to Scott [Waguespack],” a short, white woman in her 60s announced from the first row of the gallery. She craned her neck and stared intently at the cluster of news cameras. “I’ve been in the city for over 40 years, and he’s the best alderman I’ve ever seen. I’m a math teacher, so I’m a tough grader.”

The 32nd Ward alderman is Lightfoot’s pick as the next chair of the council’s finance committee. Upon approval by the full City Council, he would replace 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, the council’s longest-serving member, who’s facing federal criminal charges for attempted extortion, racketeering, and bribery.

By 9:45 the aldermen streamed in. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, freshman alderman from the 25th Ward, explained to reelected 37th Ward alderman Emma Mitts how to pronounce “Sigcho.” Forty-fourth Ward alderman Tom Tunney embraced the 16th Ward’s new alderman, Stephanie Coleman, who towered over him in an emerald-green dress. Forty-first Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano arrived pushing 38th Ward alderman Nicholas Sposato in his wheelchair.

Lightfoot emerged onto the dais in a dark burgundy blazer and banged the gavel. City clerk Anna Valencia began a roll call. After the pledge of allegiance and a spirited prayer led by Rabbi Megan GoldMarche, the public comment period began.

Over the next 40 minutes, 12 people took three minutes each to plead with the mayor and aldermen to address their concerns—the disappearances and murders of Black women in the city, the Lincoln Yards development, the welfare of horses pulling carriages, the state of our schools, the lack of jobs for young men, the police union contract. Perennial gadfly and public meeting speaker George Blakemore made his inaugural appearance in front of Mayor Lightfoot, delivering an impassioned tirade against Chicago’s sanctuary city status.

At 10:47 the council moved on to its first order of business—approving the rules governing council procedures. These included several changes, among them provisions expanding livestreaming to committee meetings as well as full council meetings; prohibiting aldermen not just from voting on but from partaking in or presiding over debates on matters in which they have conflicts of interest; and moving TIF subsidy decision-making from the Finance Committee to the Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development. Eighth Ward alderman Michelle Harris, head of the Rules Committee, introduced the ordinance, and almost immediately Burke piped up for permission to speak.

“What’s your question, sir?” Lightfoot asked. “Do you have an objection?”

Burke promised to be brief. “I think there is a serious flaw in the proposal on rules, for instance, rule two provides as follows: ‘The clerk, parenthesis, or someone appointed to fill his place . . . ‘” Burke went on to enumerate similar references to masculine pronouns in rules four and eight.

“Anything further?” Lightfoot asked, clearly impatient to move on. Burke continued citing other rules that didn’t have gender-neutral pronouns. Lightfoot interrupted.

“You’ve been in City Council for approximately 50 years, is that correct?” she asked. Burke said yes. “And you’re a lawyer?” He said yes again. Lightfoot reminded him that “under the terms of the law and particularly as provided in the municipal code, gender, whether it’s designated as his or her, applies with equal force. So, if you’re making an objection, please make it so we can move forward.” Burke tried to say more about the pronoun-related problems but Lightfoot had had enough. “We’ll take your issue under advisement and we’re gonna move forward.” Applause erupted from the gallery.

The rules were approved by nearly unanimous voice vote. Burke wanted to interject again but Lightfoot didn’t let him speak. “Alderman, please,” she said, jabbing her index finger at Burke. “I will call you when I’m ready to hear from you.” (Less than 48 hours later, Lightfoot called on Burke to resign after the feds issued a 14-count indictment.)

The council approved Lightfoot’s picks for president pro tempore, who presides over council meetings in the absence of the mayor (42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly); vice mayor, who succeeds the mayor in the case of her untimely departure from office (Tunney); and floor leader, tasked with drumming up support for the mayor’s agenda among the other aldermen (36th Ward alderman Gilbert Villegas).

Next were the committee assignments. Technically, the City Council decides who will chair its committees, but in practice the aldermen haven’t swayed from mayoral nominations to these posts since Harold Washington became mayor in 1983 and Burke, along with two dozen other white aldermen, blocked his legislative agenda. Committee chairs decide which ordinances get debated and voted on in the council, and control budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars without much oversight.

Lightfoot proposed keeping five aldermen in their committee chairmanships: Harris at Rules, 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. at Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, 19th Ward alderman Matthew O’Shea at Aviation, 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas at Environmental Protection and Energy (which was called the Health and Environment Committee under Emanuel), and Mitts at License and Consumer Protection.

Eleven committees, however, would see new leadership: Waguespack would replace Burke at Finance. Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell would replace 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin at Budget and Austin would chair a new Contracting Oversight and Ethics Committee. Dowell’s old committee—Health and Human Relations—would be chaired by Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer. Villegas would replace ex-First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno at Economic, Capital, and Technology Development, while 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. would move to Transportation and Public Way from Education. Education would go to 24th Ward alderman Michael Scott Jr. Tunney would take over Zoning from 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman (who’d only been there since the resignation of former 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis in January); Tunney’s prior committee—Special Events, Cultural Affairs, and Recreation—would be taken over by Sposato. Tenth Ward alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza would replace former 40th Ward alderman Patrick O’Connor as chair of Workforce Development and 29th Ward alderman Chris Taliaferro would replace 30th Ward alderman Ariel Reboyras at Public Safety. Former 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore would be replaced at Housing and Real Estate by 48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman. Forty-third Ward alderman Michele Smith would chair the new Ethics and Good Governance Committee.

Here, another objection, this time from 15th Ward alderman Ray Lopez. “I believe you’re out of order,” Lightfoot said, “but I’ll allow you to speak.”

“I’m seriously concerned about how this is set up,” he said about the committee chairs. “I’m concerned that the Latino representation has been cut in half, I’m concerned that the male-to-female ratio of chairmen is two to one. It feels like this was created in a silo without the full consideration of my colleagues here.” He then addressed Lightfoot directly: “You’ve made it abundantly clear today that you’re not trying to hear us, even now. We’re trying to get your attention, even now you tried to rule me out of order when I’m clearly not.” He urged the other aldermen to vote no on the chairs. “This is not good government and this is not a good way to start.”

A small crop of “no’s” rose up from the floor when the vote was called. The motion passed and the chairs were approved, as were the city department heads proposed by Lightfoot.

The council then moved on to passing a litany of zoning changes, permits, and other ward-level minutiae read over 20 minutes and voted on as an omnibus motion. As the voice of a clerk droned on, announcing ordinance after ordinance, the aldermen got out of their wide leather swivel chairs, caucused in small clusters, shook hands with and kissed people across the gallery divider, checked their phones.

Watching from the first row of the gallery, Cleopatra Watson, who unsuccessfully ran for Ninth Ward alderman against incumbent Anthony Beale and was at a full City Council meeting for the first time, was dismayed. She wondered out loud if it’s normal for council members not to pay attention while proposed legislation is being read. (It is.)

By 11:25 all motions were approved and the meeting adjourned.

“So that means Scott is officially head of the Finance Committee?” the math teacher asked. It did. “So I can send him my congratulations card and my condolences card!” She cackled as she walked toward the exit.

Newly elected First Ward alderman Daniel La Spata walked to the back of the council floor to speak to a constituent in the gallery. He seemed a bit disoriented. “I heard my name being called, introducing ordinances today,” he said. “We need to figure out what my name is attached to. Trust me, on my first day I’m not introducing any new ordinances.”

“This whole meeting . . . there’s a lot to get used to in terms of process,” he told me. Like the rest of us in the audience, La Spata couldn’t make out too well what was being called. “The sound system is not great.”

A burly assistant sergeant at arms asked us to clear out of the chamber and La Spata apologized for holding him up. “Ma’am, if you’re media you should not be back here,” the guard told me sternly. “If I see you back here again I’ll have you escorted out.”

People still milled around and bantered in the hallway outside. One of them was Amy Abramson, a member of the Friends of North Branch Park and Nature Preserve. She spoke out against the Lincoln Yards deal in the public comment period, as she had on many previous occasions. Abramson said she felt more heard than when Emanuel presided over the council: “I think she’s going to take community input very seriously.” She’d voted for Lightfoot and was pleased with her first meeting. “It was all business, and I would say that Mayor Lori Lightfoot handled it very well,” Abramson said. “She kept everyone to the agenda, and certainly put people in their place very quickly—new sheriff in town. I was impressed. To me it looks like she’s going to get what she wants.”   v