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Chicago Alderman Tells Property Owners to 'Come Back to Me on Your Knees' or Face Zoning Changes

Meet Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, the petty tyrant of Chicago's First Ward who uses "aldermanic privilege" to do whatever he wants.

By User:Victorgrigas (Own work) via Wikimedia CommonsBy User:Victorgrigas (Own work) via Wikimedia CommonsWhen the Double Door, a bar and music venue in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, violated the terms of its lease in 2016, the club's owners ended up in court with the owner of the property where it was located. The property owners wanted to evict the club, and a judge agreed that they were allowed to do that.

It was a private dispute between two businesses, the sort of thing that is routinely settled by the legal system. Or at least it was routine until the local city alderman got involved in the fight. In the months after a court ordered the Double Door to vacate the property at 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave., Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) tried to pressure the building's owners into letting the club stay, then attempted to change the zoning rules for the property to limit what businesses could occupy the space, potentially costing the building's owners thousands of dollars in future rent payments.

When Brian Strauss, one of the property owners, confronted Moreno about his actions, the alderman threatened to prevent Strauss from being able to get any new tenants in the building for three years, and told Strauss to "come back to me on your knees" when he was ready to negotiate.

Project Six, a Chicago-based political watchdog group, this week published the explosive story of Moreno's interference with the eviction of the Double Door club, including video of the confrontation between Strauss and Moreno where the city alderman appears to threaten the property owner. (Read the whole thing here.)

In his efforts to prevent the club from being removed, Moreno appears to be invoking what is known locally as "aldermanic privilege," a long-standing but unofficial policy in Chicago city politics that allows individual alderman to make unilateral decisions within their own wards. Even though the practice has no basis in law—and, frankly, seems not only ripe for corruption but actually meant to encourage it—Project Six details how it allows individual alderman to make determinations about zoning changes and permitting for all businesses within their wards.

"The practice creates an environment in which alderman act as gatekeepers to the residents and businesses of their wards, with essentially no checks and balances," Project Six reporters Faisal Khan and Kelly Tarrant explain. "The power and influence that Chicago's elected officials hold over city residents and businesses is immense. Some aldermen themselves have even compared their power to the powers of Medieval lords in charge 'of their individual fiefdom.'"

In the dispute between Strauss and the owners of the Double Door, Moreno may have had another reason to get involved. Campaign finance records uncovered by Project Six show that the club's owners donated more than $7,500 to Moreno since 2013, including an "in-kind" donation of $5,000 for hosting a campaign event for the alderman. The owners of the property, meanwhile, have not donated to Moreno.

That shouldn't matter, of course, because things like zoning decisions should exist outside the realm of politics. But when a single elected official can decide how any property within his jurisdiction is used, the two are inevitably going to become muddled.

Moreno's proposed zoning change has not yet been approved by the city council, but it would restrict future commercial establishments on street level and make it harder for the building's owners to renew residential leases on other floors. The change would affect only a single property and would leave the rest of the surrounding neighborhood untouched. It's not clear whether the city council will approve the change, but the real purpose of the proposal seems to be threatening the building's owners. So-called "spot zoning" like that has been successfully overturned in court, but only after long and costly legal battles.

Apparently not satisfied with making those implicit threats, Moreno also explicitly threatened Strauss, according to video obtained by Project City and CBS Chicago.

This isn't the first time Moreno has used his "aldermanic privilege" to intervene in the affairs of a private business. Back in 2012, he tried to exert his influence to prevent a Chick-fil-A restaurant from being built in his ward because, as the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, he disagreed with the fast food chain's top executive's opposition to gay marriage. The year before that, as the Tribune also reported, Moreno wielded his aldermanic privilege to block plans for a Wal-Mart in his ward, saying he had issues with the property owner and that Wal-Mart was not "a perfect fit for the area."

All of that says something about Moreno—namely, that he's acting like a petty tyrant on Chicago's North Side—but it says more about the insanity of the concept of aldermanic privilege. The rule of law requires that government officials have their authority held in check, specifically to prevent abuses like the ones that Chicago's civic system seems to encourage. Moreno is free to believe that Chick-fil-A's executives are wrong about gay marriage, and he's free to dislike shopping at Wal-Mart. He should not be able to use his position of authority to block those businesses from operating in his ward, and he certainly shouldn't be able to threaten property owners with targeted zoning changes if they don't kneel before him, as if he were some sort of feudal lord.

"Aldermen having such extreme power over bureaucratic issues provides little to no benefit or streamlining for residents and creates a culture ripe for abuse and corruption," conclude Khan and Tarrant, from Project Six. "Chicagoans deserve a city government that implements laws and policies based on what is best for all residents, not just those with the ear and pocket of an alderman."

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  • MarkLastname||

    This is what public ownership of the means of production looks like.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Christ, what an asshole.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Good to see feudalism is alive and kicking! I expect to see falconry and smallpox make similar comebacks in northern Illinois any day now. Who wants to bet Moreno's just itching for a chance to reinstate prima nocte too?

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "Who wants to bet Moreno's just itching for a chance to reinstate prima nocte too?"

    I might take that bet, except in view of his Chick-fil-A and gay marriage kerfluffle, Moreno's idea of prima nocte might be slightly different in practice from the historical custom.

  • Louisvanderwright||

    It's funny you bring up prima nocte, Moreno is also notorious for prowling the bar and club businesses he shakes down for donations. He gets wasted in public on a regular basis and makes a fool of himself getting grabby with girls despite being married. He has a reputation as a bit of an alcoholic and womanizer.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "male adulterers, if you could just line up by that small guillotine...."

    Rowan Atkinson as the Devil.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    I am pretty sure falconry is legal in Illinois, Citizen X. Do you have a problem with that?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I'm fine with it, it would just be weird and anachronistic if suddenly everybody was running around with a falcon on their arm.

  • paranoid android||

    Christ almighty. What is it about Illinois that seems to make it foster so pervasively the absolute worst kind of corruption?

    It reminds me of Batman comics. Gotham City is by all accounts a hellhole; I mean, even if you're super rich, you can't even go to a gala or a fancy cocktail party without the Joker showing up and killing half of those in attendance. Why does anyone live there by choice (this is especially hilarious in the versions of the mythos where the utopian techno-wonderland of Metropolis is literally placed adjacent to Gotham)? That's pretty much how I feel about Chicago.

  • Jerryskids||

    You do know who Al Capone was, right?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Hitler?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The last semi-honest political figure in Chicago history?

  • Rat on a train||

    An alderman?

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    A tax evader?

  • ||

    Someone you don't want to call Scarface?

  • ||

    straight up blackmail

  • Brandybuck||

    You pay your dues or you take your lumps.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    "The Double Door" was my nickname in college.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    "Double Door" is not the same as "Double Penetration", MJ.

  • ||

    so why is the judge that ordered the eviction allowing the alderman to try to overrule him?

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    I just love the Organized Community of Chicago and all that it spews upon the Nation.

  • Ken Hagler||

    "... things like zoning decisions should exist outside the realm of politics."

    How exactly do you imagine that a bunch of politicians and government bureaucrats telling you what you can do with your own property could possibly ever be outside the realm of politics? The only way to remove politics from zoning decisions would be to abolish zoning. That would be nice, but fascism is too deeply embedded in this country (and especially in hellholes like Chicago) for that to happen.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    This. Zoning is pretty much the definition of city politics.

  • ||

    I've never said this before but you are all wrong. The Double Door rocks and if the owners don't like it they should sell the property to someone who doesn't suck.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Thanks for your input, Alderman Moreno.

  • MarkLastname||

    I think it'd be cool if there were a Pottery Barn where your house is; if you won't lease to pottery barn you should sell it to someone who doesn't such and will. I'm calling your Alderman to inform him of this community crisis right now.

  • Red Rocks Baiting n Inciting||

    For Christ's sake, lay off the cheeseburgers and go lift, you fucking manatee.

  • Louisvanderwright||

    I've never said this before, but I'm not a big fan of Mattcid's rights to his own personal property, I think he should be forced to sell everything he owns to me at 25% of it's fair value.

    Who's with me? Can we get a democratic vote to validate my new policy? If we get a 51% yes vote then Mattcid must sell me his house and belongings at a 75% discount. This wouldn't be tyranny of the majority or anything.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Democracy? Fuck that, just go talk* to his liege lordalderman.

    *Bring your checkbook.

  • MarkLastname||

    I mean, he didn't build that.

  • Rhywun||

    Man... today's dons are lot more woke than I thought.

  • BYODB||

    Yeah, I actually kind of wonder who the 'real' owners of the Double Door really are to get that kind of value from a bought politician. A few thousand dollars seems like not enough money for what this guy is getting up to, but I guess he could just be a massive douche.

    Still, we do all know who really likes to use vice stores to launder money!

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Seeing things like this makes me feel just a little better about living in Jersey and working in Philly.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    The amazing thing is of the 50 aldermen in Chicago, at least 40 of them use aldermanic privilege more than Moreno does.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Every politician should live in constant fear of lampposts.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I'd settle for hot tar and a sack of feathers. Give 'em a chance to rethink their life while their skin grows back.

  • Red Rocks Baiting n Inciting||

    Read a local story on this and, unshockingly, Double Door has made substantial contributions to Moreno's election campaigns over the years.

    Strauss's big mistake was forgetting that he was in Chicago and that Moreno simply needed a bigger bribe.

  • target||

    That's how you know we have become less civilized. Compare with the Chicago of years past, where the situation with the alderman would have been settled by one appointment with a guy standing on the runningboards with his friend tommy.

  • Mudhen||

    Living here in Illinois, the funniest story anyone can tell you is how the Democrats are looking out for the little guy and are there to protect all of us. (The second funniest story is hearing the same about the Republicans.)

    Seriously, if you think Chicago Alderman are bad, just read up on our Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan and his daughter Lisa, our State AG. Imagine a Stage AG in the most corrupt state in the country, who in 4 terms hasn't brought a single case for corruption to member of either party. Need your property taxes lowered? Just go see Daddy. His law firm does a booming business in it. No real shock that we're losing residents at 1 every 4.6 minutes.

  • tommhan||

    So this is the Chicago politics we are always hearing about.

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