CHICAGO – If you're a cell phone-using, goose liver-eating, cigarette-smoking, fast food-loving person, Chicago might not be your kind of town.
In this city that once winked at Prohibition, members of the City Council are trying to crack down on things they deem unhealthy, immoral or just plain annoying.
A proposal that would restrict fast-food chains from cooking with artery-clogging trans fat oils got a public airing last week, and in the past year alone aldermen have banned smoking in nearly all public places and the use of cell phones while driving.
In April, Chicago became the first U.S. city to outlaw the sale of foie gras, a goose liver delicacy that is decried by animal-rights activists because it is created by force-feeding birds to fatten up their livers.
Critics, including the mayor, wonder if the City Council has suddenly deemed itself the behavior police.
"We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers," an angry Mayor Richard M. Daley said earlier this year. "We have real issues here in this city. And we're dealing with foie gras? Let's get some priorities."
Aldermen say they are addressing real problems and protecting their constituents. And they deny the proposals are diverting their attention from major issues like a city budget crunch.
"The fact that there may be greater wrongs to address doesn't mean we cannot also address what we might also view as lesser wrongs," said Alderman Joe Moore, who led the effort to ban foie gras.
Some observers say aldermen who used to do what Daley wanted them to do are feeling emboldened because Daley has been weakened by a City Hall scandal that has snared some of his top aides. Others wonder if the proposals have more to do with a changing city, one that is no longer home to steel mills and stockyards.
"This is the legislation of refinement," said Perry Duis, a University of Illinois-Chicago historian who has written extensively on Chicago. "This is a city of Starbucks rather than the steel mill."
Alderman Burton Natarus, who has sponsored a host of noise ordinances aimed at turning down the volume on street musicians, construction workers, boom boxes and motorcycles, agreed with those who argue the council is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong.
"I think we are trying to control people's behavior too much," said Natarus, who regrets voting for the foie gras ban. "We are trying to itty-bitty regulate every facet of somebody's life."
The latest target is trans fat, found in some oils used to fry chicken, fries and other foods. A proposed ordinance would limit the use of such oils by fast-food chains in the city. Like the foie gras ban, the proposal earned the mayor's scorn.
"Is the City Council going to plan our menus?" he asked.
When the trans fat idea first came up, the Chicago Sun-Times weighed in with an editorial facetiously referring to the council's "special Committee to rid Chicago of Everything That is Bad for Us," and wondering if it was "only a matter of time before they propose ordinances against certain cell phone ring-tones, secondhand barbecue smoke and bug zappers."
More than a few Chicagoans say they don't need the City Council looking over their shoulders at lunch time.
"I'm a big boy," Kerry Dunaway said as he ate fried chicken recently. "I can take care of myself."