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Aldermen Butt Heads Over City Council's Stalled Push To Hire Their Own Legal Adviser, As Bid To Force A Vote Falls Short

by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago aldermen for years have talked about the need to hire their own attorney to advise the City Council, rather than relying on the mayor's hand-picked Corporation Counsel for legal advice, but a bid to end the logjam hit another roadblock on Wednesday.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) sought to force an up-or-down vote on his proposal to create a new Legislative Counsel for the City Council, but his attempt was voted down when he couldn't get the 34 votes Mayor Lori Lightfoot said he needed to suspend the council's rules to take up his proposal.

Several minutes after that failed vote, after Lightfoot had left the meeting, Beale claimed his proposal needed only a simple majority to pass, and because the vote had been 29-19, the City Council should have been allowed to either pass or reject his ordinance. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who as council president pro tem was presiding in Lightfoot's place, conferred with Chief Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine before ruling that Beale's request for a vote indeed required suspending the council's normal rules, meaning he was five votes shy, prompting an angry and frustrated response from Beale.

"This truly has become a kangaroo court," Beale said.

After failing to get a vote on his ordinance, Beale's proposal was sent back to the Budget Committee for consideration.

Beale first introduced his ordinance last June, but it has languished without a committee hearing ever since, after another alderman used a parliamentary maneuver to divert the proposal from the Budget Committee to the Rules Committee.

"There was a concerted effort to shut it down," Beale said.

Before Beale could request a full City Council vote on his proposal on Wednesday, Reilly introduced a competing measure that would convert the council's existing Legislative Reference Bureau into a Legislative Counsel's office.

Reilly said while he and the rest of the council believe they need their own attorney to advise them on drafting ordinances, analyze litigation issues, and provide opinions on disputes over procedural matters, he believes Beale's proposal does not provide sufficient detail on how that office would be funded, or what its specific duties would be.

Reilly said his proposal not only would outline the Legislative Counsel's specific duties, and how to pay for the new office, but would give that office subpoena power, unlike Beale's proposal.

"I don't think anybody disputes the need. It's how we go about it," Reilly said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said approving Beale's proposal without first addressing colleagues' questions about the specifics would be a "hollow victory."

"If we want to do something that's going to have a lasting impact, then I think that we ought to take a little time to figure out all of the things, dot the i's, cross the t's, and get this thing done, and make it effective," he said.

Beale, however, said given that aldermen have been clamoring for years for their own legal representation independent of the city's Law Department, they should have approved his proposal, and ironed out the details later.

"We can work all these issues out in the next 30 days, and you all have my word on it," he said.

Beale, one of the mayor's most outspoken critics, insisted his proposal was not intended as a sleight against Lightfoot or the city's Corporation Counsel's office, but simply to provide aldermen with an independent legal adviser.

"The intent of this ordinance is to empower us; for someone to give us legal representation. This ordinance is not in opposition of the administration, it is in support of us," he said. "I want honest, independent representation, and we can do that."

While other aldermen said the council is unanimous in its desire for their own legal adviser, many said they believe any proposal they vote on first needs a full debate in committee to answer their questions the office would work.

"I do believe that it requires a full robust debate; because we need to talk about budget, we need to talk about staffing," said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the Budget Committee, echoed Sawyer's argument that creating a new Legislative Counsel's office requires a substantive debate in committee before a full City Council vote.

"I think it would be inappropriate for us to vote it up or down, because we don't even know what we're voting for," she said.

However, Ald Andre Vasquez (40th) said "It's a pretty simple ask" to create an independent legal advisor for the City Council, noting the city's Corporation Counsel routinely rules in Mayor Lightfoot's favor when there are disputes over procedural matters during City Council meetings.

"Trying to ask for independence, and justice, and a process, and to have the answer be 'How are we going to pay for it' feels to me to be a fundamental problem," he said.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) also shrugged off arguments that Beale should work with Reilly to come up with a compromise between their competing proposals, noting Reilly helped stall Beale's ordinance from being sent to the Budget Committee months ago as he wanted.

"Don't stand up here and tell us that this is a conversation. You didn't want to have the conversation. There is nothing that prevents us from having a counsel, and talking about it, and working those details out, as we often do. Mayor, you call upon us all the time to pass things, and we work out the details later," Hairston said. "So this is not unusual. But now, all of a sudden, we care, and we want to have these conversations. Either you all want somebody to have your back, or you don't, and if you don't, stand up and say it. But stop playing this game."

Reilly acknowledged, while he might have helped delay Beale's proposal from going to the Budget Committee in October, he did so "to slow it down, because I knew I was working on a better version, I would argue."

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said, given the questions many of his colleagues have about the two competing proposals, they should wait to act until they can review both ordinances.

"All 50 of us want a legal counsel. All 50 of us believe that we should have a legal counsel," he said. "I would hope all 50 of us would want to take 30 days to look at Alderman Beale's proposal, look at Alderman Reilly's proposal, have that go through the Budget Committee, where we can ask the questions, offer input. It's that important, I would think, to wait 30 days."

Meantime, Mayor Lightfoot shot back at aldermen who have accused her of standing in the way of Beale's proposal.

"I think some folks have gotten a little amnesia," she said, adding that she's told aldermen since she took office that the City Council needs its own attorney.

"I believe, still, that this body needs its own lawyer, because the Corporation Counsel is not your lawyer. The Corporation Counsel is not my lawyer. The Corporation Counsel is the lawyer for the institution of our city government," she said. "I support and have for three years since I was elected, and articulated during the transition that this Council needs its own lawyer."

With Beale's effort to force a vote on his Legislative Counsel ordinance failing on Wednesday, his measure now goes to the Budget Committee for consideration, while Reilly sent his proposal to the Rules Committee.

It's unclear when either committee will take up the competing proposals, or which one is more likely to pass.

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