After a rambunctious, three hour hearing that pitted the Emanuel Administration and a who’s who of city’s top lobbyists against North Side residents exasperated by the constant stream of planes over their homes, the Council’s Aviation Committee overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to put the City Council in charge of approving new runway construction at O’Hare Airport, with only one alderman, Anthony Napolitano (41), the main sponsor, voting in favor.

Attendance: Chairman Mike Zalewski (23), Pat Dowell (3), Raymond Lopez (15), Derrick Curtis (18), Danny Solis (25), Ariel Reboyras (30), Gilbert Villegas (36), Emma Mitts (37), Pat O’Connor (40), Anthony Napolitano (41), John Arena (45)

“I kind of knew [the vote] was going to go that way. I don’t hold it against any of the other aldermen,” Napolitano said. Ten of his colleagues on the council rejected his plan, which would have called for the immediate reopening of a diagonal runway (32R) and transferred approval authority of new O’Hare runways to the council’s Aviation Committee. “I was elected because I have a spine. I have a soul. I’m going to look at these constituents in the morning and say, ‘Hey, I stood up for you, I fought for you. It’s not over. We just regroup and we go back and figure out what’s going to work.’”

North Side residents and executives with the city’s top business, hospitality and labor organizations crammed into a small room on the second floor of City Hall for the meeting. With nowhere left to sit or stand, the crowd spilled out into the hallway, where City Hall security set up chairs and a loudspeaker for people to listen in.  

But the ordinance was doomed from the start. Neither the Aviation Department nor the city’s Law Department supported the plan, and had said as much to aldermen during private briefings leading up to yesterday’s hearing. Top officials from both departments–Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans and Chief Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine–reiterated those concerns in an exhaustive powerpoint presentation that went on for nearly two hours.

COPY OF CDA’S POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

Even most of the members on the committee opposed the plan, and seemed to agree that yesterday’s hearing was more for show than anything else.

“I think that noise relief is the hidden agenda of this ordinance, the indirect agenda of this ordinance, but I think this ordinance endangers lives, not just in Chicago, but throughout the entire aviation industry and network throughout this country,” freshman Ald. Raymond Lopez (15), a former skycap for Southwest Airlines, said before the public portion. “This ordinance goes beyond that, above and beyond that. And having worked at an airport, I know that if I were to ask you, are the members of the City Council qualified to make decisions based on runway usage, what would your honest answer be? Probably not.”

A who’s who of business, labor and hospitality industry executives slammed the plan, calling it a job-killing, revenue-losing scheme that would devastate the city’s economy at a time when it is still rebounding from the recession. And it seemed that for every resident who bemoaned about jet noise, there was a business executive who warned that there was so much more at stake.

Sam Toia, President of the Illinois Restaurant Association, argued the ordinance would “hamper” future investments at O’Hare Airport and stifle the city’s burgeoning tourism industry. “We are on our way towards bringing 55 million visitors a year to the city of Chicago by 2020, and in order to do that, we need to continue to modernize and expand O’Hare International Airport.”

Jorge Perez, Executive Director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), the largest Hispanic-based trade association in the Midwest, expressed worry the ordinance would impact their members’ ability to bid on construction projects at O’Hare. “These projects represent a larger capital investment and opportunities for our members and other minority and women business enterprises from doing work inside the terminals with the airlines and concessionaires.”

Jack Johnson, Senior VP for Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism arm, argued passage of the ordinance would “put a chill through the investment community… send a chill through convention and meeting planners as they think about getting in and out of Chicago… and will send a bad message to leisure tourists who’d say, ‘You know, is it easy to get to Chicago?’”

“We’re not looking to run an airport, we’re not looking to use the buzzwords of ‘We’re going to destroy jobs and shut the airport down and no one is going to work anymore and they’re is not going to be more labor,’” Ald. Napolitano defended. But his and the concerns of those North Side residents who made the trip to City Hall did little to persuade anyone.

And residents argued that they’re just as important to the city as tourists. “I haven’t heard anything about the people of the city as an economic engine, as people who drive the economy with their property taxes, with their expenditures in the city, with their use of the transportation systems, without the residents we don’t have a city,” countered Loretta Galiardi, a resident of the 41st Ward, who said she lives “pretty much under 27L9R,” one of the flight paths.

“The amount of scare tactics I heard today, obviously people have been watching the presidential debates. I can tell you as a citizen, we’re not liking it,” said Suzanne Carbon, a resident of the city’s 39th Ward. “I am not against O’Hare, nor am I against progress, what I am against is the noise and pollution being forced on a concentrated segment of highly populated neighborhoods.”

“No” Votes: Chairman Mike Zalewski (23), Pat Dowell (3), Raymond Lopez (15), Derrick Curtis (18), Danny Solis (25), Ariel Reboyras (30), Gilbert Villegas (36), Emma Mitts (37), Pat O’Connor (40), John Arena (45).