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Mayor-council standoff may have a lasting effect on Chicago

Even as Chicago political moments go, it was a stunner. At the beginning of a recent City Council meeting, Alderman Edward Burke rose to his feet in the green-walled chamber to claim a ''point of order.'' The alderman said that Mayor Harold Washington (who happened to be at O'Hare Airport dedicating a new terminal) had ''forfeited'' his job as mayor under a state ethics law by failing to file a financial disclosure statement by a required deadline. ''I now move that the vice-mayor take the chair,'' Mr. Burke said.

Alderman Martin Oberman, a frequent supporter of the mayor, promptly labeled the move a ''grandstand play.'' And a follow-up law suit filed by Burke has made little headway. Yet Finance Committee chairman Burke, a member of the council majority that often votes in opposition to the mayor, managed to score a limited political victory.

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He succeeded in embarrassing Chicago's chief executive and in reinforcing a general impression that Mayor Washington is a poor organizer who over the years has not paid enough attention to important details. Mr. Washington was once barred from practicing law for failing to perform legal services for which he had been paid, and was convicted in 1972 of failure to file income-tax returns. The mayor attributes the newest slip to a staff ''goof up.''

Although condemned by both major Chicago newspapers as a petty stunt, the Burke incident also served as a reminder that the famed City Council wars show no signs of abating.

Washington's zeal for reform when he took office a little over a year ago galvanized Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak to take protective rear-guard action by assembling a 29-member, largely white, majority team. Washington's loyal band of largely black supporters numbers only 21. Although the fight has been cast in black-and-white terms from the start, it is basically a power struggle between those who want to preserve or upset the political status quo.

While the mayor plays down any damage from the obstructionism - insisting it is democracy in action and that the city continues to function ''very, very well'' - the council majority has effectively delayed many of his appointments, killed his proposed Department of Neighborhoods, and vetoed an agreement to develop Navy Pier that would also have helped Chicago neighborhoods. Now Burke accuses the mayor of ''playing politics'' by proposing that individual requests for city-service improvements be channeled directly to City Hall, rather than through ward committeemen or other political figures.

Many business leaders, political analysts, and aldermen themselves are beginning to question whether or not the ongoing council wars may have a lasting negative impact on Chicago's future.

Both major municipal credit-rating agencies have lowered the city's bond rating in recent months. And while no one has a specific measure, rumors continue to circulate about would-be Chicago developers persuaded by the lack of local stability to make their investments elsewhere. A recent local survey of more than 800 small-business executives indicated that two-thirds felt the City Council wars have hurt Chicago. ''The perception may be as important as the reality,'' notes Larry Bennett, chairman of the DePaul University political - science department.

''Today I think few people would say that Chicago is the city that works,'' says Paul Green, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration at Governor's State University and coauthor with Melvin Holli of ''The Making of the Mayor of Chicago, 1983.''

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Both sides have often publicly deplored the council feud, but some analysts argue that each has a certain vested interest in keeping it going.

''If Harold Washington had a quiet four years, he'd be a shoo-in (for reelection) in 1987,'' insists Professor Bennett. ''By blocking him, they (the majority) hope to . . . increase the possibility of discrediting him.''

And Washington has admitted that he has used the dispute and its racial overtones in rallying his largely black constituency around him.

''He has yet to decide whether he wants to be a true reform mayor or get into the political pits with the party leaders,'' says Dr. Green. ''I think beneath all the rhetoric, he wants to be both governmental and political leader like (the late Richard J.) Daley. . . . If he believes his reform rhetoric, why is he fighting to control the party?''

Aside from its differences with the council majority, the Washington administration has had some problems of its own with the local business community. Administrative and staff ability are again at issue.

Recently, Samuel Mitchell, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, received a mayoral request for nominations to appointed city boards, only hours before an answer was due. In a letter to the mayor, he complained of lack of access to him and suggested that Washington was being poorly advised.

Although the initial City Hall reaction was negative, the mayor has since met with Mr. Mitchell and other business leaders.

''The business community basically told the mayor that he's running a big, big business and that he has to exercise some management skills,'' says Clayton Yeutter, chairman of the association's board and president of Chicago's Mercantile Exchange. ''There aren't many accolades that could be handed out over the first year. . . . Harold Washington has not been a Tom Bradley (the Mayor of Los Angeles) in the way this city has been run.''

Yet Mr. Yeutter insists he is much more optimistic now than a month ago. ''There have been more meetings between the business community and the mayor within the last three or four weeks than all of last year. We're not over the hump yet in terms of follow-through, but the attitudinal change is worth a lot. The mayor is clearly willing to listen.''

Yeutter says he also expects the City Council wars to wane in time (''they can't go on forever'') and suggests that the proposed 1992 World's Fair in Chicago will help to bring city residents together.

''I see it as a solidifying, healing influence - it's going to take wholesale cooperation on the part of the entire metropolitan community to make it a successful event.''

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