Burke indictment reveals how far an alderman’s power over property owners can reach

Federal charges against the powerful politician are a reminder it's best to make nice with local alderman when seeking permission for anything from a curb cut to a megadevelopment

Ed Burke
Ed Burke

The goal of Alderman Ed Burke’s extortion scheme was to land a powerful new client for his private law firm, according to an indictment unsealed last week. But his ticket to get there was a driveway permit.

“We stopped construction on the site and it is still on hold while the Department of Transportation reviews the driveway permits that were submitted mid-November,” a ward employee told Burke in a 2017 message, according to the complaint. “I recall that you mentioned to them since they [from outside the city] they should think about local legal representation for the zoning matters and so forth.”

City code does not give aldermen any explicit power over construction permits, which are issued through the Department of Buildings. And driveway permits have been the exclusive domain of the city’s transportation department since 1956, when the City Council passed an ordinance aimed at snuffing out bribery in ward offices.

But the charges against Burke last week reminded city residents what most Chicago property owners and business operators already know: When seeking permission for anything from a curb cut to a megadevelopment, it’s best to make nice with the local alderman first.

Debates over a number of developments in recent years have drawn attention to the unwritten rule of “aldermanic privilege,” which gives aldermen near-unilateral power over zoning decisions inside their ward boundaries. The rule is how a freshman alderman Tuesday single-handedly stripped a 20,000-seat soccer stadium from Sterling Bay’s $5 billion vision for Lincoln Yards.

But aldermanic privilege can also bleed into decisions on building and licensing permits, which don’t require public hearings, and which aldermen can influence with a phone call to the right bureaucrat.

The power of the call varies heavily from seat to seat, according to Dick Simpson, a former alderman and current professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written multiple books on Chicago corruption. Leaders as powerful as Burke, who until Friday chaired the committee responsible for setting agency budgets each year, can compel city employees to listen.

“If you want to keep your budget, and you don’t want to be the subject of a press conference saying you’re destroying the city, you’ll pay attention when an alderman comes to you,” Simpson said. “You may still end up approving the permit, but you’ll at least give the courtesy of going back through [the application] for another look.”

One developer active in Chicago, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of political retribution, put it more bluntly.

“If the alderman doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t happen,” the developer said. “They can hold up anything they want. All it takes is one call to a city inspector, saying ‘Don’t give him his occupancy permit.’”

Aldermen have been known to hold up approvals for alley access, loading zones and sidewalk modifications — all “things nobody cares about and shouldn’t involve [aldermen], but do, because it provides an opportunity to extract leverage,” the developer said.

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But the ward-level powers don’t always work against property owners. Plenty of permit-seekers, like Northwest Side business owner Joe Basilone, have benefitted their elected officials’ unique abilities to cut through red tape.

In 2014, while Basilone was trying to prepare his Perkolator coffee shop for an inspection, he complained in a Facebook post that utility company Peoples Gas had spent weeks rebuffing his requests for service. Then-Alderman Tim Cullerton (38th), the scion of a 144-year City Council dynasty and Basilone’s Facebook friend, saw the post and offered to help.

“He called someone at City Hall, and that person made a call, and two hours later a truck showed up,” Basilone said. “They got the heat turned on just in time for our inspection.”

The timing of the bombshell charges against Burke, less than two months before voters elect a new mayor and City Council, has drawn out dozens of ethics reform proposals from candidates trying to stick out in a crowded field.

Amara Enyia, a community organizer and former city employee who is running for mayor, held a press conference Tuesday in front of the Burger King whose owners Burke allegedly extorted. She trumpeted her “good government platform,” which would, in part, “remove executive functions from aldermen and transfer those processes and decisions to relevant city departments.”

“If you’re a small business owner and you need to have to have a relationship with your alderman in order to get a permit to put up a sign, that has a real economic cost,” said Enyia, who is also the director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “I want to remove those administrative functions from the hands of aldermen and into the hands of executive agencies, to mitigate the possibility of corruption.”

Candidates Gery Chico and Lori Lightfoot also have proposed outlawing aldermanic privilege as part of their campaign platforms.

But the next mayor won’t be able to end aldermanic clout by decree alone. And since the rule isn’t legally codified, it would take more than a city ordinance to put the controversial practice to bed, according to an aldermanic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The building code is very clear on a lot of this stuff, so a lot of it is really just changing the culture so that people are operating by the book,” the aide said, adding that most aldermen have little recourse to stop building modifications that don’t take up public space.

Even fewer aldermen are expected to have access to agency levers after this year’s elections. The body will lose at least 110 years of combined experience when new members are sworn in, according to The Daily Line — and potentially many more, if endangered incumbents like Burke get knocked off.

“Things are better than they were 20 years ago, and they’ll keep getting better,” the aldermanic aide said. “It’s just moving a lot slower than many of us would like.”

Spokespeople for the city’s Department of Buildings and Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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