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Council Follies: Committee of One

Berny Stone don't need no stinking quorum.

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Alderman Bernard Stone didn't need to use a gavel to call the Committee on Buildings meeting to order on December 7--Alderman Ray Suarez, the only other member of the 14-person committee who'd shown up, was sitting right next to him. The meeting was scheduled for 10 AM, but at 10:08 no one else had arrived, and Stone announced to the 30 or so people in the audience that the meeting was getting started.

Under City Council rules there's no minimum number of aldermen who have to be present to hold a committee meeting. As long as the members who show up think they can take care of business, they can. Stone clearly was confident that he and Suarez had things under control.

Now 79, Stone has served as alderman of the far-north-side 50th Ward for 33 years and chair of the building committee for 15. He's a heavyset man with a growl in his voice that his colleagues and even Stone himself find amusing. He looked at the agenda and announced that the first item, an ordinance requiring permits for donation bins, had been tabled because its sponsor wasn't there. Next up was the routine matter of approving several permits for businesses that wanted to put up new signs. "Is there anyone who wishes to testify on any of these matters?" he asked.

No one said anything, including Suarez.

"Alderman Suarez moves to pass," Stone said.

Suarez nodded.

"All in favor?" Stone said.

"Aye!" the two aldermen said together.

Stone pushed on to the problem of a "hazardous residential building" at 6440 N. Hamilton, which he said had so many code violations the City Council had to authorize the city to raze it. "This is a matter introduced by myself," he said. "Alderman Suarez moves that it be passed. All in favor? Aye!"

Next was a proposed amendment to the city's building code that would restrict the use of "split-face block"--textured concrete block that's used like brick as facing. At issue was whether the block is prone to water seepage, which causes mold and structural damage.

Oscar D'Angelo, a real estate deal maker who's been called the "Mayor of Taylor Street," stepped forward to testify in favor of the ordinance. He argued that buildings with exterior concrete block can cause health and safety problems and that they're "aesthetically unattractive." He said builders should spend a little more money and use brick instead. "Where this split-face block has been used, it has not been good for the community," he said. "Now, Mr. Chairman, you and I do not have the expertise to speak on this, but--" "You say you and I don't have the qualifications, but I was a builder before I became an attorney," Stone barked. "I've been involved in building for more than 50 years!"

D'Angelo was momentarily taken aback. "I've been known to make a dollar or two in development as well," he said, his voice rising. "I had hoped to come in here and be humble, but if you're questioning my credentials, I'd have to say that as founder of the Landmarks Preservation Council, I know more about design and building than most members of the council!"

Suarez chose this moment to get his first question in. "Have you ever used this method in one of your projects?"

"No," D'Angelo said. "I would be embarrassed to come before the community if I did!"

"You realize that all brick is porous," said Stone, noting that only skilled builders can install brick or split-face block well.

D'Angelo said his home had been built with brick in the 1890s. "It does not have leaks. It does not have mold. It--"

"All brick is porous."

John Thompson, vice president of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 21, testified that water seepage was caused by poor workmanship, not by the blocks themselves. He blamed greedy developers who hire untrained immigrants instead of unionized workers. The city, he said, should crack down. "What we need in Chicago are more mason inspectors."

"In addition to more inspectors, we need some self-regulation by the union," Stone said irritably. "The union can do something too."

A couple more people from the construction industry made remarks, and then Stone moved to adjourn the meeting without a vote on the amendment. Suarez seconded the motion.

As people filed out, a staffer from the city's Department of Buildings approached Stone, who was busy talking with reporters and audience members about the amendment and other recent political developments. He said one of the people who's running against him in the February election had accused him of ignoring the recent fire on Devon Avenue. "He's full of shit," Stone said. Asked about another opponent who'd put up signs all over the ward, he said, "So what? Signs don't vote."

The buildings department staffer politely interrupted. "One thing about that building on North Hamilton--it's actually 6442."

"Not in my opinion," Stone snapped.

The staffer insisted the address wasn't 6440.

"What's the difference?" said Stone, shrugging. "Fine. I'll change it."

D'Angelo appeared at Stone's side. "Berny, I thought it was great that the longer those other guys were talking, the better my argument became."

Stone got up to leave and replied, "No, it didn't."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP Photo/M. Spencer Green.

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