CHICAGO (CBS) — The City Council Ethics Committee on Tuesday balked at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to partially roll back the city’s ban on “cross-lobbying,” which aldermen unanimously approved in February.
The ban prohibits all city elected officials and employees from being paid by a private client to lobby any government body in Illinois, at either the state, county, or municipal level. Likewise, it bars any other elected officials in Illinois from being paid to lobby the City Council, or any city department or agency on behalf of a private client.
The Ethics Committee voted 17-0 to reject an amendment the mayor introduced in April, which would have exempted outside elected officials from the ban if the government body they represent “has no pending or recurring legislative or contractual matters involving the city.”
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who co-sponsored the original cross-lobbying ban, argued now is not the time to be weakening an ordinance aldermen approved in an effort to restore public trust amid a widespread federal corruption probe.
“The general public has a great distrust of our body, and with good reason. Too often, elected officials’ self-interests have overshadowed public service,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said the change sought by the mayor might seem small, but he argued opening it would simply open the door to more exemptions.
“Once we carve out this exception, what will come next? If we start watering down this regulation, it will be rendered totally irrelevant,” he said. “Now is not the time to relax ethics regulations. Passing this ordinance will send a terrible message to the public that the Chicago City Council is blind to the corruption that is happening all around us at multiple levels of government.”
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said local government still has a lot of work to do to regain trust from constituents.
“There are a lot of other laws and parts of the code that we should be spending time on right now as we enter budget season other than revisiting what is some of the strongest ethics legislation in the country,” she said.
Lightfoot had argued the cross-lobbying ban approved by aldermen was too strict, but the Ethics Committee let the proposed amendment languish for months without a hearing until Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) recently threatened to force a floor vote by the full City Council.
At a committee hearing on Tuesday on the mayor’s proposed change, Ervin echoed Lightfoot’s argument that the ban went too far by banning any elected official in Illinois from lobbying the City on behalf of a private client.
Ervin has argued that many elected officials in small towns and villages are paid little for their government jobs, and make their real living through lobbying work. He said they shouldn’t be forced to choose between keeping their elected positions or being able to lobby the city of Chicago on private matters, when their government work has nothing to do with the city.
“I do believe that certain elected officials should not be lobbying us … especially members of the General Assembly, and members of the government of Cook County,” Ervin said. “I do not believe that some park district commissioner in Carbondale needs to fall into that same category as the law currently as is on the books would apply.”
However, Chicago Board of Ethics executive director Steve Berlin was not swayed by Ervin’s argument.
“There is an inherent conflict between an elected official of any government lobbying other governments on behalf of private clients,” he said.
Berlin noted the definition of unit of local government in the ordinance mirrors state law, and excludes local school districts, so members of elected school boards and local school councils are not covered by the cross-lobbying ban. He said the ordinance also includes exemptions for elected officials who are lobbying the city on behalf of their constituents.
Berlin and aldermen also noted only one lobbyist currently registered with the city of Chicago would be affected by the cross-lobbying ban, which the Board of Ethics has not yet started to enforce as the City Council weighed Lightfoot’s proposed amendment.
Gyata Kimmons, who is also a village trustee in south suburban Flossmoor, is the only lobbyist currently registered with the city who would be impacted by the cross-lobbying ban.
City records show he was paid $231,500 during the first six months of this year to lobby on behalf of several high-profile clients, including McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Wendella Sightseeing, the Chicago Association of Realtors, the United Center, electric scooter company Bird Rides, and Westfield Concession Management, which represents several shops at O’Hare Airport.
Ethics Committee Chairwoman Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), a former federal prosecutor, said any law passed by any government body is bound to impact someone.
“We impact businesses all the time. Things that we do impose costs on businesses that businesses are concerned about. We impose costs on individuals paying taxes,” she said. “We don’t legislate to make changes for one person, and we try to continue to move our city forward.”
Later Tuesday, the mayor said she did not see the vote against her proposed changes as a defeat, claiming it was Ervin, not her, who decided to push for a vote on the measure after it had sat idle for months.
Lightfoot said she told Ervin “you can do what you want, but you’re going to have to build a coalition for this change.”
“He went forward, I think, fully understanding the difficult terrain, and the council voted how it voted,” she said.
However, the mayor said she still believes the original ordinance had some “unintended consequences that she believed needed to be fixed.”
“I’m not walking back that I supported [the proposed amendment],” she said.