Alderman Burnett: An African American should lead the police and fire committee | Bleader

Alderman Burnett: An African American should lead the police and fire committee

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When Ike Carothers pleaded guilty a few weeks back to taking bribes from a developer, he gave Mayor Daley a two-for-one deal. Not only would Daley get to pick a new alderman for the 29th Ward—he'd also get to choose a new chairman for the City Council’s Committee on Police and Fire, potentially one of the more powerful jobs in the council.

Daley has already appointed former state rep Deborah Graham as Carothers’s replacement on the City Council, but the mayor still hasn't picked anybody to lead police and fire, and that has some members of the City Council’s Black Caucus feeling a bit nervous.

As we've reported before, some aldermen began calling for sweeping reforms of the city’s police board late last year. In theory, members of the police board, who are also appointed by the mayor, review cases of police misconduct and then make disciplinary decisions. But a scathing report issued by the nonprofit Chicago Justice Project found police board members often blew off meetings, were reluctant to fire problematic officers, and didn’t issue written statements on how and why they came to their decisions. Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti sponsored an ordinance designed to address the concerns, but Carothers tabled Fioretti’s plan in the police and fire committee, where the ordinance will remain in legislative limbo until Daley picks a new chairman.

How and when that'll happen is anybody’s guess.

“I don’t think that there’s real precedents or structure,” says Walter Burnett (27th), who sits on the police and fire committee. “The mayor will do what he does. How he’ll do it? No one knows.”

But Burnett isn’t taking any risks and has been lobbying the mayor to appoint a black alderman to the position. Burnett, who leads the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he and other black aldermen are concerned about the appointment for some fairly obvious reasons, starting with the long shadow of former Commander Jon Burge, who for years oversaw the torture of black suspects on the south side. There's also the fire department's spotty record of hiring and promoting African Americans, which has produced some long, expensive litigation. Burnett said he’s not sure how many aldermen are interested in the position, but he appears to be hedging his bets by recommending five black candidates: aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th), Michelle Harris (8th), Anthony Beale (9th), Willie Cochran (20th), and Emma Mitts (37th).

“Our main concern is equity and safety in our communities,” Burnett told me. “That’s why the caucus bartered up, because they’re very concerned about someone being in place who’s going to help to ensure some of those things [get done] through the power of being the chair on the committee.”

Burnett said he's spoken with top Daley aides but has no idea when the mayor will announce his decision. "Who knows?”

Actually, the City Council doesn’t even have to wait for the mayor to make up his mind. According to the City Council’s rules of order, aldermen are supposed to choose who sits on what committee. They've long yielded that right to the executive branch.

While it’s not clear when the mayor will make an announcement, there's little disagreement about the kind of alderman he'll pick. Carothers wasn’t exactly known as an independent, and that’s why Hairston believes she won’t get the nod.

“Generally those positions go to people who have a relationship with the mayor,” she says.

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