Before Chicago started picking up garbage on a grid system seven years ago, any alderman could order that a certain corner of his ward — or even the home of a favored brother-in-law — be taken care of first.
Aldermen don’t order around the garbage trucks anymore. But for an array of other routine city services — such as granting a shopkeeper permission to put up an awning — they still can call the shots, thanks to an unwritten rule called “aldermanic prerogative.”
Like Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, we think aldermanic prerogative, which was at the heart of several recent criminal scandals, should be seriously curbed. And there are practical ways to do it. Most directly, Lightfoot could simply order all city departments under her control to quit deferring to an alderman’s wishes. [...]
Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson is right when he says Lightfoot will have a hard time getting rid of aldermanic prerogative altogether. As he says, the system is informal and you “can’t legislate relationships.”
But we’re not looking for perfect, just better. [...]
In addition to being criminally abused, aldermanic prerogative has had the collective effect of undermining thoughtful citywide planning efforts for new development and affordable housing. When an alderman is calling the shots, nobody with a grander vision stands a chance.
“Aldermanic prerogative has stopped a number of good projects,” says Jacky Grimshaw, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president of government affairs.