Lessons in Community Organizing

The least we can expect of groups purporting to represent the community is that they be honest and aboveboard, that they disclose any interests of any kind that they or their leaders have in proposed commercial developments or ward improvements, and that they tell the larger community the full truth.

There are several things the larger community can learn from the way the private deal for the Devon-McCormick development was handled.

  1. Beware of groups raising the specter of a criminal activity. Ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support those claims. Use FOIA to get police statistics. Look for a motive: Who stands to gain? The lesson of Watergate applies here: Follow the money.
  2. Become involved in what’s happening to our commercial spaces. We have lots of vacant lots, buildings, and stores. Who owns them? Have they been taken off the property tax rolls? Are nonprofit groups buying commercial properties to sell later at a profit while they reap years of gain from not paying property taxes?
  3. Are commercial properties being properly maintained? Many buildings on our commercial streets are in horrible disrepair. As I understand it, some of the TIF funds used for the street scape will also be used to improve building facades. Why are the taxpayers funding the improvement of privately-owned buildings, especially when those buildings are owned by wealthy suburbanites? In some cases, façade repair is less than walking-around money for these individuals. Why can’t they pay for their own property upkeep? Has it become customary for business owners to expect handouts from the taxpayers for their business properties while they live in luxury in the suburbs?
  4. Demand that groups purporting to speak for the community be held accountable. Demand full disclosure of all deals put forth in the interests of community improvement. Who’s going to make money if a so-called improvement goes forward? Is the community receiving full information?  How long has this been in the works? What promises have been made? To whom?  By whom? Have there been any political contributions? What political influence has been brought to bear on the desired outcome? At what point in the process are we? Is the community being brought in at the beginning, or are we merely attending meetings to give the illusion of input and to provide legitimacy to a done deal?
  5. Be savvy about press coverage. Don’t believe everything you read. Was the “reporter” present at the event? Was information funneled to the reporter by parties interested in shaping the story and affecting the outcome? What information was omitted? How soon after a community meeting does the first press coverage appear? Does it feel too close for comfort? Were there details revealed in press coverage that weren’t stated at the meeting? Who provided those details? Was it the same person who spoke at the meeting? Why weren’t the details provided when the community was present?

The kind of backroom deal that occurred with the Devon-McCormick redevelopment should not be permitted to happen again.

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