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Council Follies: Freshman Orientation

The new aldermen get their bearings while the veterans conduct business as usual.

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Scott Waguespack pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the election season when he toppled Daley-backed incumbent Ted Matlak in a runoff for alderman of the 32nd Ward. But on Monday afternoon the police officer checking IDs outside City Council chambers didn't recognize the bespectacled 36-year-old Waguespack, who looks like a friendly math teacher or the manager of a shoe store, so he stopped him. If Waguespack and the eight other new aldermen are going to be agents of change in the council, they've first got to get in the door.

"Um, OK," Waguespack said after being blocked from entering. "Here." He handed over an official city of Chicago inauguration invitation. This satisfied the cop, who waved him in, and the new alderman made his way to a meeting room down the hall where all 50 members of the new City Council were shaking hands, slapping backs, offering hugs and congratulations, and posing for pictures.

In the weeks since the election, hopes have mounted that the council is entering a new, more progressive era. Daley's own actions suggest that he's aware that he may have to work harder to get his way. Last week the old council held a special meeting to ram through his affordable-housing ordinance before the new members could muck it up. And he's been mocking or dismissing critics with more vehemence than usual in what looks like an effort to show everyone who's boss.

There was no doubt about who was in charge at Friday's meeting of the council's Committee on Special Events and Cultural Affairs. On what would have been her last full day in office, committee chair Madeline Haithcock was a no-show, so vice chairman John Pope stepped up. Pope, alderman of the Tenth Ward, was first elected with the help of Daley's allies in the Hispanic Democratic Organization. Only five others on the 16-member committee were present: Manny Flores (1st Ward), Michelle Harris (8th), Lona Lane (18th), Vi Daley (43rd), and, for a few minutes, Patrick Levar (45th).

At issue was an ordinance that would change the way the city commissions hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of public art each year. The new law would "streamline" the process, as Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg put it during the meeting, by eliminating a pair of selection committees partly made up of members of the public. Instead, the Department of Cultural Affairs would do the selecting, with input from com-munity members picked by the alderman of the ward where the art was to go on display.

The pros and cons of this particular ordinance notwithstanding, the committee meeting was a good demonstration of how this city does business. During an hour's worth of testimony for both sides of the controversial amendment, there were few questions or comments from any of the aldermen in atten-dance. Vi Daley asked Weisberg to clarify how the program would work, and Pope helped out with a few leading questions.

"You mentioned that some 700 pieces of art are currently in the [public art] inventory?" Pope said.

"Uh-huh," said Weisberg.

"How do we maintain or address the conservation of those pieces? If we do have limited staff who are getting involved in this cumbersome [selection] process, will streamlining this process aid that in any way?"

"It will certainly aid it," Weisberg said.

Only Flores seemed at all skeptical: "I haven't decided if this is a good amendment or a bad amendment," he said. Still, Pope hastened to call for a voice vote on the measure. "We have a motion by alderman Lane to pass," he said.

Lane, who won in a runoff after being appointed to her seat last fall, hadn't said a word.

"All in favor?"

Several voices chimed in "Aye."

"All opposed?"

Silence.

"In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it."

When the meeting ended a minute later, I asked the vice chair what the official vote total had been. "It was five to nothing," Pope said. Flores looked flustered. "Actually, I'd like to be recorded as voting no," he said. Pope shrugged and said that made the tally four to one.

In the hallway outside I caught up with Lane and asked her why she'd supported the ordinance. "Well," she said, "that's a good question." There was a long pause before she continued. "I have people in my community who want to have and do art and sculptures, and I believe they have that right. And I want to have more art in my community." Of course, the ordinance will give more decision-making power to local aldermen.

During the swearing-in ceremony Monday, the mayor delivered a half-hour speech that included an appeal to the new council not to get carried away in debate.

"The people of our city expect their leaders to continue work-ing together," he said. "They want action to meet our challenges, not endless politics. Just look at Washington, D.C., and state capitals around the nations--never-ending debate and little action on the issues that matter to people. We don't have that luxury in Chicago."

Most of the new aldermen had an "I'm just happy to be here" look.

"Yes, we were brought in to increase the level of debate, but I don't think there should be debate just for the sake of debate," Seventh Ward alderman Sandi Jackson said in an interview after the speech. "I agree with the mayor: there should be discourse, but it should be civil discourse."

Waguespack said he wanted to work with the mayor on reducing gun violence but vowed that there would be debate anytime he disagreed with administration initiatives. Pat Dowell, the new Third Ward alderman, said her top priority was getting a ward office and hiring her staff. Sharon Denise Dixon, of the 24th Ward, said she had to get used to the job but looked forward to working with Daley and her new council colleagues. Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti, who earlier in the day promised not to rubber-stamp a public-housing redevelopment plan, answered reporters' questions and then posed for pictures in his new council seat.

Except for Rey Colon, who had an assistant sergeant at arms get a few shots of him sitting in the mayor's chair banging the gavel, most of the veterans left the council chambers soon after the swearing-in ended. The way many feel may have been articulated by the 27th Ward's Walter Burnett, who recently fought the mayor for a tougher affordable-housing plan but hoped he wouldn't have to go through that again.

"These past few things, we haven't been able to resolve things behind the scenes because we didn't agree," Burnett said. "But I'd rather make an announcement in public that we've done something than disagree in public."

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Waguespack, Bob Fioretti, and Sandi Jackson with Freddrenna Lyle photos by A. Jackson.

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