Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 15-year proposed deal with Commonwealth Edison was temporarily blocked Wednesday, a setback for the mayor for what she’s billed as the “strongest municipal utility franchise deal in the country.”
The delay comes amid concerns that such a monumental agreement should be decided after the upcoming municipal elections.
During the proposal’s introduction at City Council Wednesday, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, sent it to the Rules Committee, where legislation sometimes languishes. Afterward, he likened the deal to the infamous 2008 parking meter plan passed under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who traded 75 years of city parking revenue to private investors for $1.15 billion.
“We’re in the middle of elections,” Vasquez told reporters afterward. “We could have a whole radically different Council, potentially a new mayor, and if they want to have any concerns or make any changes, they won’t be able to for three terms.”
The mayor and all 50 aldermanic seats are up for election Feb. 28, with an April 4 runoff for any seat where no candidate gets at least 50% of the vote.
Vasquez along with other progressive aldermen have called for a city takeover of ComEd, a feat that Lightfoot also explored but decided was fiscally unfeasible.
The Lightfoot administration developed two companion ComEd deals, including a 15-year franchise agreement for ComEd to continue providing electricity, with an option to extend it for another five years. The city would have the option to municipalize the system if it chooses after the first five years.
The other part of the proposed deal is an “energy and equity agreement” to advance the city’s climate action plan, with promised benefits ranging from solar panels for low-income people to more than 1,000 jobs for South and West Side residents. ComEd money supporting the projects would be controlled by a “third-party nonprofit board” consisting of five people appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council and two selected from ComEd.
During presentations to aldermen on Monday, Lightfoot officials indicated she hoped to pass the ordinance before the end of the term.
The pending deal represents a significant breakthrough between Lightfoot’s administration and the company since the U.S. attorney’s office announced in July 2020 that ComEd would be charged with a single count of bribery in a nearly decade-long scheme to funnel money and jobs to loyalists of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, in hopes that he would back the company’s legislative agenda in Springfield.
The company — which most recently signed a franchise deal with the city in 1992 that expired in 2020 — agreed to pay a $200 million fine and federal authorities would drop the charge after three years if the utility fully cooperates in the investigation. Madigan, ComEd executives and others remain tangled in the probe and face trials in the coming year.
The Rules committee will need to vote on the legislation before it can return to its regular path of going through the Finance committee and then the full Council floor. Both committees are controlled by Lightfoot allies.
About $90 million of ComEd’s cash would go toward executing the climate action plan, with another $10 million into training the workforce, under the deal. Should the agreement be approved and eventually get extended another five years, an additional $20 million would go toward the fund.
In total, $520 million in mostly state and federal grants would go toward hundreds of community benefit projects for the climate action plan. That includes 4,000 solar roofs for low-income residents and one community site, thousands of residents receiving affordable broadband internet using ComEd fiber, a new West Side clean energy training hub with a $3.2 million expansion of a Chicago Public Schools program to train 10,000 residents in transitioning to clean energy, over 1,000 South and West side residents hired in new construction or customer service roles and over 100 energy “ambassadors” to help assist with bills.
After it was sent to committee, the contentious deal emerged again during Wednesday’s meeting when Lightfoot attempted to schedule another City Council session next week to move the proposal. That effort failed and devolved into a spirited debate over procedure.
Multiple aldermen stood up in protest, including 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, who attempted a motion to stop the proposed meeting from proceeding. His motion didn’t get a vote, but Lightfoot’s allies conceded regardless and allowed the next Council meeting to take place March 15 instead.
“We got a slew of lawyers in this place and we can’t follow the rules,” Beale said before the vote, waving his glasses around in frustration at the bickering over whether his motion was allowed or not.
Several jabs were exchanged, including Lightfoot responding to indicted 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke’s objections to her attempts to move the ordinance to a joint committee rather than a special committee by quipping he didn’t know the rules even though “I believe you’ve been in City Council for quite some time.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, another mayoral critic, jumped in and said — “as someone who’s been here longer than you” — that Lightfoot was mistaken and that she must allow a roll call vote on Beale’s motion.
“The taxpayers deserve us to look at this,” Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th, who is not running for reelection, said. “Does anybody in here feel comfortable with what’s in this?”
Garza then reiterated comparisons between the ComEd deal and the Daley parking meter agreement, to which Lightfoot ally Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, shook his head and muttered, “Don’t even. Don’t even.”
Lightfoot retorted that the legislative process requires open discussions and votes, and that cannot happen if members are blocking ordinances and meetings — although her own allies have done the same to proposals unfavorable to the mayor.
“I hear a lot of conversation and consternation,” Lightfoot said. “We enter things into the body so that the body can consider it. … That cannot be done if we are playing parliamentary games.”
On the same day as the formal introduction of the ComEd deal, a pair of aldermen also introduced what they dubbed the “Transparency in Long-Term City Contracts Ordinance,” to ensure proposed franchise agreements are subject “to more rigorous evaluation and more meaningful public scrutiny” before a final vote.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th, one of the sponsors, said the ordinance would apply the same standards the city requires for large privatization deals to the franchise agreement. The proposal calls for 90 days of Council and public review, at least two hearings and an independent analysis examining whether the pick of the franchisee “was fair and transparent,” and how the deal would impact electric rates.
The ordinance would also give the city’s inspector general jurisdiction “over any franchisee with respect to that franchisee’s performance,” and limit “all monetary compensation” paid under a franchise agreement to be only paid to the city “and not to any third party.” That money could only be used to advance the city’s climate action plan, invest in green energy infrastructure, or to reestablish the Department of the Environment, according to the proposal.
It was referred to the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, which has not had an official chairperson since former Ald. George Cardenas’ exit. Ramirez Rosa said he spoke with the committee’s vice chair, Ald. Samantha Nugent, 39th, and is hopeful the committee could have a meeting and potential vote before the franchise agreement makes it out of the Rules Committee. If the ordinance did pass committee, the ComEd deal would be considered by the next Council and potentially, a new mayor.
“And I think that makes sense. I don’t think that a lame duck council should be voting on something like this, so rushed,” Ramirez Rosa told the Tribune.