PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday February 10th, 2016, 6:43pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: The Brouhaha Over Council Oversight & Plan To Slap Cab Riders With Another Surcharge

Progress Illinois provides highlights from Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting, which covered everything from city council oversight to the "tampon tax."

Chicago aldermen agreed Wednesday to give City Inspector General (IG) Joe Ferguson the authority to investigate council members and their staff, but his powers won't be as strong as initially proposed.

The ordinance approved today does not allow Ferguson to conduct Chicago City Council program audits, a function included in an original IG oversight plan backed by a majority of aldermen.

Changes were made to that original ordinance based on recommendations from an IG working group, chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's floor leader Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th).

In an extremely close 25-23 vote, aldermen moved the weaker ordinance to the council floor for consideration. They ultimately approved it 29-19.

The city council has been without IG oversight since Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan's term ended in mid-November of last year. Aldermen have been wrestling over the issue of city council oversight and what to do about the Legislative Inspector General's office for some time.

Prior to today's vote, aldermen debated the IG ordinances for about 30 minutes, trying to persuade their colleagues to support their preferred proposal.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) was among the council members pushing for the stronger ordinance. Speaking on the council floor, Smith urged aldermen to "reject efforts to water it down," adding that "voices are pleading across the city for greater transparency and accountability."

Ald. Will Burns (4th) supported the amended version, saying it gave the IG "broad and sweeping" powers. Under the revised ordinance, council members will be "operating under basically the same rules as everybody else," added Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

Ferguson, however, blasted aldermen for approving the weaker plan, saying in a statement after the vote that they "squandered what could and should have been a singularly successful moment in the city's civic history."

"The action brings to close chapters in Chicago's ignominious ethics history by shuttering an office devised to create the appearance of oversight, but designed to fail," Ferguson said. "Unfortunately, the council still failed to fully meet the moment. Instead of embracing oversight for itself consonant with that for the rest of city government and operations, it retreated."

For his part, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called today's IG developments a "significant step forward."

"This is a new chapter and a new day for the city of Chicago, and what I [said] was clear to the city council ... 'you are not going back to the days where there wasn't an inspector general to help identify waste or fraud. You have to keep moving forward,'" Emanuel said. "And today, they moved forward. People will judge how significant a step. I happen to believe it was a significant step forward."

Emanuel stressed that "this is not the end" when it comes to working on the city's ethics issues.

"It's not over," he said. "It's part of an evolution that constantly strives toward making government, now the city council, more open, more accountable, more knowledgable in how it spends" taxpayer dollars.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) was among those who voted against the watered-down ordinance. He called the outcome of the vote "disappointing."

"Thirty aldermen took a strong stand for ethics last month and, unfortunately, we didn't see that here today," he told Progress Illinois. "I think that the usual powerful leaders in the council, senior leaders, prevailed in watering down this ethics ordinance ... I voted 'no' because I thought it was only right that the city council be treated just like any other city employee. And it's a shame to see that people felt that we needed special treatment, just like they felt when we created the Legislative Inspector General, which was a disaster."

Under the measure approved today, Ferguson cannot probe into the aldermanic "menu money" program or the workers' compensation program, controlled by powerful Ald. Ed Burke (14th), chair of the Finance Committee. Burke, who voted in favor of the weaker ordinance, left the council chambers after today's meeting without taking questions from reporters.

Ald. John Arena (45th), who introduced a proposal calling for hearings on the oversight of workers' compensation claims by city workers, said the council's approval of the revised ordinance is a step in the right direction.

"The passage of even this amended version of the ordinance is an important stride in bringing ethics and reform to the city council, but we still have a long way to go," Arena said in a statement. "We can't stop working for true oversight with full audit authority for the city's watchdog."

The resolution Arena introduced today calls for council hearings to "examine [the] legal, administrative and financial benefits of control and authority of workers' compensation claims by [the city's] law department." The resolution was referred to the Rules Committee, known to some as the place "where good legislation goes to die."

50-Cent Charge Proposed For Cab Fares Paid With Credit Cards

Transportation Committee Chairman Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) is seeking to slap a 50-cent surcharge on taxicab trips when riders pay with a credit card. Beale, who introduced the proposal at Wednesday's council meeting, said a 50-cent surcharge would help offset the taxi industry's costs for credit card transactions. 

"We were trying to put money back in the cabdrivers' pocket. And this was another avenue where we saw money coming out of their pocket," Beale said Wednesday, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. "This is a move to ... level the playing field .... If you use your credit card, they were being hit. It's unfortunate, but this is a move that needs to be corrected."

When asked whether the move would cause people to opt for ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft, the alderman seemingly brushed off such a notion.

"I doubt it. ... When people use their credit cards, they tip better," Beale reportedly said.

Beale's 50-cent surcharge proposal comes after a 15 percent taxi fare hike took effect this year.

Amended Tobacco Tax Proposal Delayed

Aldermen stalled an amended version of Emanuel's plan to increase the smoking age from 18 to 21 and impose a $6 million tax on certain tobacco products.

The substitute ordinance gained approval earlier that morning in the Finance Committee by a 22-9 vote. But during the full council meeting, a few opposing aldermen used a procedural tactic to postpone the proposal's consideration for at least one council meeting. 

"Today, you can delay what we're gonna do, but you can't defeat it," Emanuel said after the council meeting. "Because the votes were there."

"The attempt by the tobacco industry [is] to not only lure kids ... [but to also] have them addicted to tobacco products ... [and] I've seen in Congress how some people can also get addicted to their resources and their money. City Council will pass this ordinance because it's right to help kids quit smoking or never start," he said. "They can try to delay, but they will not defeat the effort to put Chicago and Chicago's children on the right path."

The measure was tweaked after council members voiced concerns earlier this week that the original proposal would result in increased sales of "loosie," or single, cigarettes in their communities and negatively impact small businesses.

The substitute ordinance clarifies that the $6 million in tobacco tax revenue would be put toward CPS orientation programs, smoking cessation and health education programs for youth, and enforcement of provisions related to the illegal sale of tobacco products.

Maximum proposed fines for the sale of "loosie" cigarettes also increased, going up from $2,500 to $5,000 for a first offense and from $5,000 to $10,000 for subsequent offenses. Those caught selling "loosies" could also face up to six months in prison.

The proposal seeks to impose taxes on cigars as well as rolling and smokeless tobacco. An ounce of rolling and chewing tobacco would go up $6.60 and $1.80, respectively. The respective tax per each mini and full-sized cigar would be 15 cents and 90 cents.

If the new taxes do not survive a possible legal challenge, the ordinance allows the city to set minimum prices for tobacco products, which could be adjusted by the public health department to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) helped stall the tobacco tax plan. During Wednesday morning's Finance Committee meeting, Reilly expressed worry over the tobacco product price floors, saying he does not "believe the city of Chicago should be in the business of setting" minimum prices for any product.

"Setting price floors, I think, is a real mistake and a path we shouldn't be heading down," he said.

At $7.17 per pack, Chicago already has the highest tax on traditional cigarettes in the country. Emanuel also hiked taxes on e-cigarettes as part of his 2016 budget.

The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network issued a joint statement about the delayed tobacco ordinance. 

"Big Tobacco is scared that Chicago is poised to put our children ahead of their profits," the statement said. "It is unconscionable that a few aldermen are towing Big Tobacco's line and putting off the vote that will help protect our youth from the dangers of tobacco. Evanston kids have enjoyed some of these protections for over a year, and Chicago's kids deserve no less. Chicago is ready to do the right thing. Aldermen should allow a vote."

Uptown TIF Housing Project Approved 

A long-proposed and controversial Uptown housing project got the green light at Wednesday's council meeting. The $125 million luxury housing development, which calls for a $15.8 million tax increment financing (TIF) subsidy, is planned for the former Columbus Maryville Academy site near the city's lakefront. Read more about the project here.

$3.1 Million Police Hiring Settlement OK'ed

Aldermen authorized a $3.1 million payment to settle a class-action lawsuit against the city over the Chicago Police Department's residency requirement for applicants.

The U.S. Justice Department brought the class-action suit to the courts last Friday. The lawsuit claimed that 47 police applicants were discriminated against due to the police department's then-requirement that those seeking positions in the force be a United States resident for at least ten years. The residency requirement was changed in 2011 and is currently set at five years.

The lawsuit stems from the cases of the two lead plaintiffs who applied to become police officers in 2006 and 2008. They were not hired because they did not meet the 10-year residency requirement.

New Veterans Caucus Formed

Six aldermen who have served in the Armed Services are members of the new Veterans Caucus, which officially formed Wednesday.

Council members on the Veterans Caucus include Alds. George Cardenas (12th), Ed Burke (14th), Danny Solis (25th), Chris Taliaferro (29th), Milly Santiago (31st) and Gilbert Villegas (36th). The caucus will focus on efforts to improve city services for veterans and reduce homelessness among veterans.

"[T]his group of aldermen has been working together since I was elected," Villegas, who was elected last year, said in a statement. "Those of us who have served, we automatically connect and we understand each other. We decided it was best to have a team of people to advocate for our service members."

Aldermen Seek To End City's "Tampon Tax"

Tampons and sanitary pads would be exempt from the city's sales tax under a proposal introduced Wednesday by Burke and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).

In Chicago, feminine hygiene products are taxed at 10.25 percent. Of that total, the city's sales tax represents 1.25 percent.

"This tax only affects women. Is that fair? Especially when sanitary products are medical necessities?" Burke said in a statement. "These are not luxury items and Chicago needs to lead the way in eliminating this unfair tax."

The proposed ordinance argues that tampons and sanitary pads are medical necessities and therefore should be exempt from Chicago's sales tax. The aldermen introduced companion resolutions calling on the state to extend its lower 1 percent sales tax on medical appliances to feminine hygiene products.

At least five states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, exempt feminine hygiene products from their sales tax. Several other states are considering a similar exemption.

"Removing the tax in Chicago and lowering it in Illinois would help to make these products more affordable to women, especially poor women," Hairston added.

Council Members Speak Out Over Proposed Freight Merger

With Canadian Pacific Railway seeking to acquire Norfolk Southern Corporation, aldermen introduced a resolution Wednesday "asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to keep Chicago uppermost in mind" in reviewing the proposed merger. 

Norfolk Southern Corporation has some 600 Chicago-area employees.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) and Burke introduced the resolution, which has the backing of 37 other aldermen.

"At a time when the resources of the city are stretched thin, we cannot afford to gamble away future rail investments planned by Norfolk Southern," Burke said in a statement. "Those investments in turn will expand beyond the billions of dollars of economic impact the company's investments have already had on the city's industrial sector in favor of a unproven offer by a Canadian-based company with limited experience working with the city."  

Aldermen are concerned about what the possible freight merger could mean for local Norfolk Southern projects, including the "New Era Trail" in Englewood. The rails to trails project will serve South Side communities such as the 15th Ward.

"Lifestyle developments like the rails to trails project that we are building on the South Side will serve as a cornerstone for neighborhood revitalization," Lopez added. "City officials and Norfolk Southern were able to work together to find a win-win solution for Chicagoans and the railroad by swapping dormant railroad right of way and vacant city land into transformational uses. The former will one day become a major cultural and community resource, while the latter will turn into a bustling part of the railroad's rapidly expanding 63rd Street Intermodal Facility."

Council Hearings Sought On Animal Control's Policies

Lopez introduced another resolution Wednesday, seeking a city council review of Animal Care and Control's policies and practices. Concerns about euthanasia and other "inhumane treatment" allegedly used by the city's Commission on Animal Care and Control (CACC) prompted Lopez to file the resolution. 

The measure seeks council hearings "based on the notion that the culture of acceptable, state-sanctioned euthanasia has fostered an environment that promotes the inhumane care, treatment and disregard for the animal charges the CACC is mandated to care for," the resolutions reads. 

Lopez also wants the city council to gather policy recommendations to improve animal welfare, such as "ending euthanasia in Chicago, increasing animal transfers to no-kill shelters or partner organizations, potentially eliminating the CACC and partnering with current not-for-profits or humane organizations to fulfill the CACC mission."

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