CHICAGO — On Chicago's South Side, a dispute between a business owner and a powerful alderman is shining light on the much-maligned practice of “aldermanic privilege” and how city council members wield the power in their wards.
57-year-old Phillip Degeratto is the owner of the Buddy Bear Car Wash chain and has been doing it for three decades.
“This is my life," Degeratto said. “My only business is car wash. I don’t know anything else.”
He said the car wash business, however, didn’t prepare him for what he calls "the dirty business of Chicago politics." He said he’s a victim of the misuse of the much-criticized practice of “aldermanic privilege.”
“I think this is a clear example of abuse of the alderman’s privilege because he’s not trying to block something that would affect the community negatively, like a liquor store or a night club," Degeratto said. "This is a professional business.”
He claims he is being zoned out of business after sinking nearly a million dollars into this vacant land.
Next door to his business is a machine shop in Canaryville, on Chicago's South Side.
“This land at 46th and Halsted, this is a site that’s been vacant over 20 years," Degeratto said. "I looked at this site because it was zoned allowing a car wash.”
He also said he discussed his plans with 11th ward Alderman Patrick Thompson.
“I met with him late last year and he wasn’t for or against," he said. "He was noncommittal? Noncommittal. And a month later, his office left a message saying, to my realtor, not to me, his office left a message saying they were not in favor of a car wash.”
“I told him, I didn’t think that was appropriate," Thompson said. "If he wanted to do development of retail, I’d be more than happy to talk about that. Then, it went dormant.”
Degeratto completed the land purchase in May.
The alderman proposed changing the zoning on the property one month before in April.
“It’s the commercial spine of our ward," Thompson said.
Thompson said a car wash wouldn’t fit with the overall development plan for the corridor, which calls for residential units situated above retail space.
“We’ve been systematically looking at that, how do we attract small businesses, restaurants, entrepreneurial businesses, boutiques, along the commercial corridor," Thompson said. "That’s what the neighbors are looking for, that’s what they’ve asked for.”
The alderman also cites traffic congestion as a concern. He said more than 200 neighbors signed a petition asking that he deny the permit.
“We got notice that the permit was on hold for a pending zoning change," Degeratto said. "That caught me by surprise.”
He said he never received notice of the pending changes, but the city maintains notice was sent to the property owner.
Aldermanic privilege became a dirty word in Chicago politics after the Ed Burke scandals.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned promising to curtail the practice.
Thompson said this is not an example of the maligned aldermanic privilege run amok. He said he’s simply representing his ward.
“It’s not me," Thompson said. "I’m the voice for my community and my community has clearly spoken on what they’re interested in. He can try to claim that it’s an abuse of aldermanic prerogative, which it’s not. It's what my community wants as evidenced by the petition I showed you.”
Degeratto said he believes he’s being singled out.
“This is only happening on this one strip, right? Not all around?” Degeratto said. “That’s right, he hasn’t proposed any zoning changes next to me, down the street, anywhere around. He’s targeted my property.”
Thompson said the man whose business is making things clean is actually the one playing dirty.
“He tried to play dirty politics," Thompson said. "He’s tried to contact every law firm, and every lobbyist that I know, thinking that’s what’s going to influence me over my constituents. That’s dirty. Doesn’t happen in the 11th ward, we don’t do that.”
The zoning change has been approved by committee. It will be voted on Wednesday by the full city council. It is expected to pass.
Degeratto likely only has two options: sell or sue.