CHICAGO (CBS) -- The City Council on Friday rejected a bid by more than a dozen aldermen to repeal Mayor Lori Lightfoot's vaccine mandate for city workers, despite concerns from some aldermen that it could lead to staffing shortages at the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department, with dozens of officers and firefighters already placed on no-pay status for failing to comply with a requirement to report their vaccination status.
A group of 13 aldermen arranged a special City Council meeting on Friday to vote on an ordinance that sought to overturn the vaccine mandate, and require City Council approval of any future such mandates. After more than 2 hours of debate, the Council voted 30-13 against the measure.
Opponents of the effort to repeal the city's vaccine mandate said police officers and firefighters -- who are the largest share of city workers not complying with the vaccine mandate -- can't serve and protect the public if they refuse to get vaccinated against a contagious and potentially deadly disease.
"You can't serve and protect if you don't protect yourself first," said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th).
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said critics of the vaccine mandate are essentially trying to hold the city hostage by warning of staffing shortages if employees are forced to go home for defying the mandate.
"If individuals under the employ of the city of Chicago can randomly choose what they will and will not do, being given a direction, that's a huge problem," Ervin said. "For a minority to attempt to take the city hostage by saying that, oh, you won't get ambulance service, if your house go up in flames, nobody will be there to put it out, or when you dial 911, nobody will respond; that's hostage-taking, because they don't want to comply with the policy that's been given."
Lightfoot said the fight over the vaccine mandate is not about whether people support police officers and firefighters, but about ensuring the city can bring the pandemic to an end after nearly two years.
"I believe by leading by example, by making sure that I live my values out loud every day, and I know without a doubt – as many of you have said today – is that the only way we can save lives and put this pandemic behind us is to get people vaccinated," she said.
The mayor also argued repealing the vaccine mandate would only strip the city's executive branch of the authority to manage employees under its authority.
"This ordinance strips the executive of the ability to manage the executive branch, to manage the 30,000 employees in the executive departments. That's what this is about," she said.
Lightfoot invoked the infamous Council Wars of the 1980s under Harold Washington, when a coalition of 29 aldermen routinely blocked Harold Washington from exercising his authority as mayor.
"Some of the people in this room were perpetrators," Lightfoot said in a clear reference to longtime Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who teamed up with several other aldermen against Washington during the Council Wars.
The mayor said she doesn't want to fire city workers who defy the mandate, and claimed that some city employees who were placed on no-pay status for defying the mandate have come back to ask for their jobs back, "because cooler heads prevailed."
"Likely they went home and their spouse said, 'you did what? No, no, no, in this household we don't miss paychecks," she said.
Lightfoot also urged people to "stop the fear mongering" that the city will be left without enough police officers and firefighters to keep Chicago safe because of the mandate.
"That hasn't been true and it won't be true," she said. "Trivializing and politicizing an issue about public safety is shameful, and it must stop."
The city's vaccine mandate required all city workers to report their vaccination status by Oct. 15, or face the prospect of being placed on no-pay status. Unvaccinated city workers may opt to undergo twice weekly testing for COVID-19 through the end of the year, but come 2022, all city workers must be fully vaccinated.
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), one of Lightfoot's most frequent and vocal critics, called those deadlines "completely arbitrary," and said threatening to discipline or even fire city workers who defy the mandate would only hamper public safety at a time when the Chicago is already seeing a surge in shootings and carjackings.
"Every one of the traditional, as well as the newer media outlets, is hammering us daily for the fact that our city is spiraling out of control. This isn't a topic for debate, it's not even a question. Every one of you know that your residents quite literally feel that they are under the gun every time they leave their homes," he said.
Lopez said the vaccine mandate should be repealed and the City Council should instead work with the Lightfoot administration to craft a vaccine policy that does not jeopardize public safety
"Right now, we are riding this train off the rails, and all of us need to lean left to bring it back onto the tracks," he said.
But Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said vaccine mandate opponents who claim it risks public safety are being hypocritical, given that COVID-19 is still causing deaths and hospitalizations every day.
"If you really want to talk about public safety, and you want people to be safe, then have our officers get vaccinated. Not that hard," Vasquez said.
He also noted, that if officers object to being vaccinated, the mandate allows for them to apply for a religious or medical exemption.
"Those are very valid reasons. There's a process to do so," he said.
During the meeting, Lightfoot's staff distributed a letter to aldermen in an effort to show the vaccine mandate is supported by most city workers, noting 18 of the city's 34 departments are in 100% compliance with the requirement to report their vaccination status, 10 others are at 99% compliance, and 4 are at 92%-98% compliance.
"We are also making steady progress with both the Police and Fire Departments. The Police Department is reporting 72 percent compliance as of yesterday and the Fire Department is at 87 percent compliance," she wrote.
The mayor also noted the vast majority of officers and firefighters who have reported their vaccination status have confirmed they are vaccinated, while only a few dozen have been sent home without pay for defying the ordinance – representing less than 1 percent of each department.
Opponents of the effort to repeal the vaccine mandate said, although some city workers might risk being sent home for disobeying the vaccine mandate, the city has a responsibility to make sure officials know which employees are vaccinated and which are not.
"We want to make sure that they're safe, and the people that interact with them are also safe," said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who chairs the City Council Health Committee.
But Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd), the lead sponsor of the effort to repeal the mayor's vaccine mandate, said threatening to put city workers on no-pay status if they don't report their vaccination status and eventually get fully vaccinated by Dec. 31 risks staffing shortages at vital city departments.
"I know this is a tough vote for some, but what are we going to tell our residents who missed a garbage pickup, or had to wait extra time for an ambulance during a medical emergency? What are we going to tell the victim of crime in our ward who had to remain in harm's way, because a police force staffing crisis was made worse by a mandate that we had no control over?" she said.
Tabares said aldermen should have the same authority to ask questions and vote on mandates from the mayor's office as they do when the mayor proposes ordinances, appoints department heads, or negotiates contract agreements with the city's labor unions.
"The mayor should be able to propose personnel policies that impact vital services, and we should be able to review, ask questions, and vote," she said. "This ordinance should not be a tough vote, but I know the heated rhetoric has made this much more political than it needs to be. All we're saying here is that we should ask questions. We should have answers to these questions."
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former police officer and firefighter, said requiring all city workers to get a vaccine, whether they want to or not, equates to "stealing people's rights."
"I will get as many people vaccinated with this vaccine that want to, but it will be a cold day in Chicago when I force anybody to," he said.
However, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer who chairs the City Council Public Safety Committee, argued that the City Council does not have the authority to nullify a mayor's executive order.
"Within the executive branch of government, they have an unfettered right, and the chief executive of any municipality or any state has the right to govern over the departments which falls under that branch," he said. "We as a legislative branch cannot impose upon the executive branch rules, regulations and policies. We cannot do that. That's why we are strictly tasked with creating ordinances, and those ordinances cannot – for all intents and purposes – make null-and-void an executive order. Legally, we cannot do this."
The mayor's vaccine mandate has prompted two lawsuits from city workers seeking to overturn it in court; one filed in Cook County Circuit Court by the city's police unions, and another filed in federal court by dozens of firefighters and Water Department workers.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former Chicago Teachers Union member, said "organized labor runs through my blood," but argued the vaccine mandate is essential for the city, and the City Council should not intervene in every dispute between City Hall and labor unions. She said such disputes are supposed to be resolved through arbitration, formal grievances, or even lawsuits. "I ask my colleagues who are supporting this ordinance, are you willing to make City Council the final judge on every grievance or labor dispute that arises in this city? I'm not," she said. "That will wreak havoc on the collective bargaining process."
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