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Chicago Power and Sweet Home: One Step Forward, One Step Back

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The City Council met last Wednesday, February 9, for its monthly meeting and the result was business as usual. But yesterday, February 14, when an ad hoc committee and a roomful of engaged Chicagoans held a hearing in the same space, the result was a significant step forward for the City. First a report on the progress.

The subject of Monday's hearing was the Clean Power Ordinance that I introduced last April. As I reported to you at the time, its purpose is to address the significant air pollution caused by Chicago's ancient Fisk and Crawford coal-burning plants in Pilsen and Little Village, respectively.

But make no mistake about it: this pollution affects all of us in Chicago. Dirty air doesn't respect ward boundaries, and the 49th Ward (not to mention Wisconsin and Canada) also suffer from these emissions. The ordinance would require the plants to significantly reduce emissions of both the particulate matter (soot) and carbon dioxide. The former is a major cause of asthma and lung disease, the latter is the primary contributor to global warming.

The follow-up step for any introduced ordinance is a hearing. Yet for 10 months now, the powers that be on the Chicago City Council have refused to set a hearing date. And it's quite clear where the Mayor stands on this issue -- if he had wanted the hearing, it would have happened.

So enough was enough. I called for and organized an "ad hoc committee" to hold a hearing at City Hall, where scientists, environmental leaders, medical doctors, and concerned and affected citizens could speak out. Joining me were several of my colleagues--Aldermen Joe Moreno (1st Ward), Walter Burnett (27th Ward), Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward) and Rey Colon (35th Ward).

And speak out they did! Testimony was given by environmentalists from the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Resources Defense Fund, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, PERRO (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization), the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Blacks in Green. Doctors spoke from UIC's School of Public Health, the SEIU Doctor's Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Mothers of children with asthma and cystic fibrosis testified as to the effect of dirty air on their children's lives, from Pilsen to Logan Square to Lincoln Park. And children themselves testified how they wanted a better, cleaner city. In addition, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Congressman Mike Quigley sent official letters of support. All who testified demanded that the Clean Power Ordinance be passed immediately.

The Clean Power Ordinance currently boasts 17 sponsors -- 16 of my colleagues and myself. We are all committed to increasing our numbers to the 26 sponsors required to pass it into law, and with a new mayor (three of the major candidates already support it; and the fourth leading candidate supports it in principle), I am convinced that the Clean Power Ordinance pass and the Fisk and Crawford plants will finally be forced to curb their toxic emissions and clean up our air.

Now back to last Wednesday's meeting. The only real news that took place at the meeting involved the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance, and unfortunately the news wasn't pretty. Sweet Home Chicago would require the City to set aside for affordable housing development an amount equal to 20 percent of all Chicago Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds. The ordinance, which had been subject to months of parliamentary delays and general foot dragging, was finally called for a vote on the floor of the City Council.

However, before we could even begin the debate on the ordinance, Alderman Patrick O'Connor, the Mayor's "unofficial floor leader" moved to "table" the ordinance. A motion to table is non-debatable and the matter went to an immediate vote. The motion prevailed on a 28-19 vote, which means the ordinance is stalled indefinitely, probably until the next City Council and mayor take office.

This is most unfortunate. At a time when every community in our city is hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance would provide a ready pool of funds that could begin to address the crisis. Instead, like the Clean Power Ordinance, we'll have to wait and hope that the new mayor and city council will be more enlightened.