Daley defends system of aldermanic zoning decisions

January 29, 2008

Gary Washburn, Tribune reporter

Mayor Richard Daley on Monday defended the Chicago tradition that allows aldermen to dictate the fate of development in their wards, backing a status quo in which the City Council routinely ignores the recommendations of planners.

And Daley made it clear he has no intention of trying to prohibit contributions from developers to aldermanic campaign funds or making other changes in a system critics contend is ripe for abuse.

In stories published Sunday and Monday, the Tribune detailed how aldermen who have backed the most “upzoning” ordinances — permitting bigger buildings on sites whose value climbs as a result — have received hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in campaign contributions from developers, real estate agents and others in the business.

The result in some cases has been construction of buildings on residential streets that tower over nearby homes and change the character of the neighborhoods where they are built.

Under a long-standing practice, the council routinely approves zoning changes backed by the local alderman, rubber-stamping amendments even if there is neighborhood opposition.

“Zoning is their prerogative,” Daley said of the aldermen. “They are elected by local … residents in regards to the quality of life” they provide in each ward.

Daley bristled when he was asked if the system needs to be changed, contending he would be accused of a power grab if he proposed reforms.

“You yell at me one day, you’ll criticize me one day — ‘Mayor Daley has too much power’ — and then you call all the aldermen derogatory names. … Now you want me to control everything.”

Daley said he “has to be able to deal with the legislative branch, and I deal with the legislative branch every day. They’re my checks and balances …

“You need checks and balances in government,” he declared. “Maybe you don’t like it.”

Asked if donations by developers in upzoning cases looked bad, the mayor replied, “Don’t ask me. You have to ask [the aldermen]. I have enough problems.”

Daley later was asked at a South Side news conference about the appearance of a conflict of interest. “Well, you’ve known this for 20 years. You’ve never printed it,” barked Daley, who has been mayor since 1989. “Don’t tell me about it. Now all of a sudden you wake up on Jan. 28 and you talk about it.”

The Tribune and other publications have run stories over the years about zoning changes and political contributions from developers who have benefited from them.