The City Council accomplished little during a scheduled meeting on June 23, adjourning after South Side Alds. Raymond Lopez (15th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) blocked confirmation of the mayor's nominee to lead the city's Law Department.
The alderpeople did confirm a new Chicago Fire Department commissioner, Annette Nance-Holt, who becomes the first Black woman to have that role; Alds. Sophia King (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th) and Taylor voted alongside all their colleagues to confirm her.
But the council did not vote on a controversial bill, which all three local alderwomen support, to rename Lake Shore Drive for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the Black fur trader considered to have "founded" Chicago. Nor did they vote on the mayor's economic recovery package, which would now end alcohol sales at midnight in the city instead of 10 p.m., as she had originally proposed.
The head of the Law Department is called the city's corporation counsel, whose role functions similarly to that of a solicitor general at state or federal levels: they handle civil claims, negotiate settlements and defend the city in lawsuits. The previous corporation counsel, Mark Flessner, was forced out in the fallout from the Anjanette Young scandal, as the city had tried to keep footage of the botched raid that targeted her sealed.
Late last year, Lightfoot appointed Celia Meza, her administration's counsel and senior ethics advisor, to be the city's corporation counsel; she has been serving in an acting role since then.
But at the June 23 City Council meeting, Ald. Lopez — perhaps Mayor Lori Lightfoot's greatest antagonist on the council, whose ward covers West Englewood, Brighton Park, Back of the Yards — rose to delay the council's approval of Meza's official appointment through a parliamentary procedure called "defer and publish."
Taylor spoke to support him, in protest of the city's treatment of Young.
The city has filed to dismiss Young's civil suit against the city as her attorney, Keenan Saulter, has sought to resolve his client's case through mediation. But they say talks have broken down in the months since Young and the mayor met one-on-one for what was described at the time as "a lengthy, very candid and productive conversation."
In a June 18 statement, Saulter said Lightfoot, Meza and other attorneys "continue to play games and waste taxpayer money while filing frivolous motions to dismiss" while the mayor "has repeatedly indicated that she would make Ms. Young whole and that she would direct her legal department to resolve this case."
"It is clear that the Mayor’s words are nothing but political talking points devoid of candor or action," Saulter said.
At the council meeting, South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the Budget and Government Operations Committee, noted that Taylor did not attend that committee's June 16 meeting, when Meza's nomination cleared, and that the Young scandal never came up. "This looks like a last-minute drive-by," Dowell said.
Taylor, speaking to the Herald, countered that she is not on that committee. (Alderpeople may still ask questions during meetings of committees of which they are not members, though they cannot vote in them.)
Taylor and the mayor got into a heated argument over the issue, with Lightfoot descending from the dais to talk to the alderwoman on the council floor.
"She pointed her finger while she was sitting at the podium to tell me to meet her at the back. I thought she was talking to (Far Northwest Side Ald. Nicholas) Sposato (38th), but she was talking to me," Taylor said after the meeting. She said they discussed her issues with the city's handling of Young's lawsuit.
"I'm not a child. We are coworkers, and clearly she doesn't understand that I don't work for her," Taylor said. "You can obviously see what kind of person she is, because the meeting didn't move the way it's supposed to."
Taylor said the corporation counsel should work for Chicagoans and "not side with the mayor all the time." She said she has discussed Young's case with the mayor's staff but that a meeting with the mayor herself about the issues has been continually pushed back.
South Side Ald. Michelle A. Harris (8th), Lightfoot's floor leader, soon thereafter called for the meeting to adjourn after alderpeople voted to reconvene on Friday afternoon, and the council voted 27-22 to adjourn. King, Hairston and Taylor voted against adjourning.
Hairston, incumbent since 1999 through three different mayoral administrations, said in an interview after the meeting, "It's never been like this before."
"Obviously we have a mayor who doesn't follow the rules and tailors the rules to her benefit," she said. "I was reading the rulebook during the meeting. I have it with me all the time, and a motion to defer and publish (allows for) no debate. To call on other alderman and debate is a violation of the rules, period."
During last month's council meeting, when King tried to call a vote on the ordinance to rename Lake Shore Drive for DuSable, Lightfoot instead recognized Near North Side Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who used a defer and publish motion to block a vote until this month's meeting.
Hairston said she and other alderpeople are meeting to discuss having an independent parliamentarian to administer council rules; currently, the mayor runs the meeting as the presiding officer. Hairston said the aldermanic group is also considering hiring a council attorney "because obviously the person who sits there now is not following the rules."
In the meantime, "My constituents should feel good that I know the rules and that I feel good about adhering the rules that I took an oath to uphold, and that's what I'll continue to do," Hairston said.
The council's Rules of Order state that the mayor is presiding officer of City Council, according to the Office of the City Clerk.
Taylor did not attend the meeting but confirmed discussions are underway and that she would support hiring a parliamentarian. King, after the meeting, also said the rules need to be followed: "The rules can’t change depending on who’s talking."
Hairston declined to say whether or not she would support Meza's nomination for corporation counsel. Taylor said she has no questions about Meza's qualifications but that "she needs to understand that she works for the citizens of the City of Chicago; she does not work for the mayor, period."
"The only way this city is going to work is if we work together, and that's all of us. That includes her, that includes us, and that includes the citizens of the city. Why can't you see it that way? You ain't got all these progressive people in office just because. They're here because the city of Chicago is tired of the same-old-same-old," Taylor said.
Taylor's side did lose the vote not to adjourn the meeting, however, joined by some conservative aldermen. She countered that the Emanuel and Daley administrations received significantly higher levels of support from their councils than Lightfoot has enjoyed so far into her term.
"You've got people moving in the right direction," she said. "You've got people trying to vote with their morals and principles and try to do what's right."
Lightfoot cancelled her post-meeting meeting with the media, telling the press corps that she would hold one after the Friday council meeting. But she did release a statement.
"Our residents expect the City Council to pass critical legislation that impacts their daily lives. However, today, a small group of aldermen brazenly created a spectacle and did a disservice to their constituents, instead of raising their concerns through the appropriate forum," she said. "As a result of their cynical actions, the City Council failed to pass protections and relief for our hotel workers, primarily Black and brown women, who were most impacted by the pandemic, and our small businesses. On Friday, we look forward to continuing our work on behalf of Chicagoans."
New CFD commissioner confirmed
The council unanimously confirmed Annette Nance-Holt, a Chicago Fire Department veteran, to be the new fire commissioner at its truncated meeting.
Nance-Holt, one of only a few Black commissioners in the department's history, has said she will recruit hard in non-white communities, do outreach in under-represented communities, and schedule the first firefighters' entrance exam since 2014 by early next year at the latest, the Sun-Times reports.
The new commissioner brought U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd), whose district includes East Hyde Park, as part of her entourage to City Council. Nance-Holt has been a strong advocate for gun control laws, like Kelly has, since 2007, when her son, Blair Holt, was killed while shielding a Far South Side high school classmate from gunfire.
Ald. King, speaking during council, applauded Nance-Holt's appointment.
"As a mother, as an African American, as a woman, you have faced many challenges to get where you are. It doesn't go unnoticed," she said. "I think more importantly, it's important to acknowledge that you're taking all of those challenges that you've learned and are still willing to help others to rise as you have risen."
The council did not get a chance to vote, however, on a $1.825 million payout to settle a lawsuit from four female paramedics who said they were sexually harassed by members of the CFD and another who was retaliated against for reporting harassment. The department has long been affected by racial discrimination.
Hairston, in an interview after the meeting, called Nance-Holt "a survivor of the department," someone who has "come up through the ranks under those horrific circumstances" and "a testament to what can be achieved."
"I think because she has been there, she knows firsthand the things that happened and is in a position to do something about them," Hairston said.
Taylor stated the maxim that "Black women fix it" and said Nance-Holt will have to prove herself on the job and by her relationship with the council.
"It is sad that we know what city this is, and not a lot of people become firefighters," she said. "It just is what it is, so I am looking forward with her. I'm always open. But if she doesn't, she won't be any different, and there'll be replacements. We'll call her to the carpet like we do everybody else."