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Burke voices concerns about Emanuel’s pot proposal

Ald. Ed Burke Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday July 6 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Ald. Ed Burke at the Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday July 6, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2012 6:18AM

The City Council’s most powerful alderman on Monday expressed serious reservations about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, said he’s concerned that issuing marijuana tickets might send the wrong message to teenagers, like his adopted son, Travis.

“Is this a slippery slope that we begin sliding down? As a parent, I’m very concerned about anything that gives kids the idea that this is not a bad thing to do. [These are] things people have to consider before they sign on to support a further decriminalization,” said Burke, a former Chicago Police officer.

“I’m against smoking. There’s a lot of studies that have proven that even smoking tobacco products is a way to let kids get into the habit of smoking — and then, the next step is using illegal drugs. So, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this. I’m saying there’s a lot of questions that ought to be answered.”

After an unrelated luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago, Burke also talked about the “serious administrative problem” posed by writing a marijuana ticket to somebody who doesn’t have a drivers license or another form of official identification. Those without ID’s could lie to police and skate, he said.

“Do you believe what the person says: ‘My name is Joe Blow,’ or, ‘My name is George Washington’ and he’s got no ID to back that up? How do you then guarantee that person is ever gonna show up for the administrative hearing?” Burke said.

“That’s why the Police Department has to be more clear about what their plan is. That’s what I’m waiting to hear.”

Emanuel said last week his ordinance would merely give police officers the “discretion” to ticket people caught in Chicago with 15 grams of pot or less — with fines ranging from $100 to $500.

The mayor said officers would still have the discretion of charging offenders the old-fashioned way — by forcing them to face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

But, Burke said, “That has to be made very clear. The Police Department has to show us … that they’re not gonna just blindly issue tickets to everybody in possession of small amounts. There has to be a certain strategy to know which of these people they could write a ticket to are eligible for a ticket.”

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported last week that Emanuel had thrown his formidable support behind a controversial plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In a press release, the mayor chose to frame the issue as a way to get more police officers on the street — to fight a 35 percent spike in homicides and a troubling return of mob attacks in the downtown area — at a time when the mayor lacks the money to hire more cops.

Burke’s surprise reservation might explain why Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, refused to predict the head count on the pot ticket ordinance and made it clear that aldermen would be free to vote their conscience.

“I don’t think there’ll be a full-court press to make sure it passes overwhelmingly,” O’Connor said.

“I do think it would pass. There are a lot of folks who believe it would save us some money and put us on a different track. But, I’m not sure everybody will be for it. ... There’s a lot of personal histories — people who know folks who have had problems and drug-related issues. There’s a myriad of issues that go beyond ... a strictly financial or governmental situation.”

Monday’s break on the mayor’s controversial proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana marks Burke’s first public split with Emanuel. But, the alderman did not rule out the possibility of supporting the mayor’s plan if his questions are answered.

Burke (14th) held onto his job as chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, despite a pre-election threat by Emanuel to unseat his former rival in retaliation for Burke’s opposition during the mayoral campaign.

Since then, Burke has been a loyal soldier supporting and defending, even the most controversial of the mayor’s programs, including speed cameras, the $1.7 billion Infrastructure Trust and the mayor’s plan to impose restrictions on protesters.

During the mayor’s nasty battle with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 over proposed cutbacks in library hours, Burke even joined Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) in urging public library employees to forfeit their 3.5 percent pay raise for 2012 to eliminate all-day Monday closing of branch libraries.

The surprise proposal strengthened Emanuel’s hand in the union standoff before the mayor found another way to reverse the Monday closing.

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