The Town Hall Meeting That Wasn’t

A true town hall meeting brings citizens together to discuss local issues, to try to reach consensus on important issues, to work together with local officials to resolve problems of concern to the community.

The alderman’s July 27 town hall meeting was misnamed. At best, it was a panel discussion moderated by the alderman during which a lucky few got to ask questions of various city and police officials.  At worst, it was a dog and pony show designed to satisfy the alderman’s burden of actually meeting with her constituents.

She began by acknowledging the presence of her husband and mother, naming her staff, and thanking them for their hard work.  [Ira’s presence at all ward meetings raises some interesting questions, since he apparently doesn’t attend meetings in the 40th Ward, also in his Illinois Senate district.]

“I like to have yearly community meetings to discuss issues in the ward,” she said, and noted that her two most important areas of concern since she was elected in 2011 have been public safety and constituent services.

And when she hears of an issue in the ward, she and her staff “immediately go into problem-solving mode.”  This ownership approach to issues suits her base, but not those in the ward who’d like to be part of the solution to its problems.

She then introduced Commissioner Charles Williams from the City’s Department of Streets & Sanitation, Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld of the Department of Transportation, local resident Gary Litherland, who handles public relations for the Chicago Department of Water Management, and Sgt. Shawn Sisk, representing the 24th District CAPS office. Each would make a short presentation and then respond to questions from the audience.

But first the alderman pointed to a large ward map displayed at the front of the room, and said it showed the many streets that have been resurfaced during her tenure, adding that she “personally drives” the ward’s streets, ranking them from best to worst. She did not say why she rather than the ward superintendent is performing that task. [FYI: ward superintendents are paid $70,000 – $111,000 per year; the alderman is paid $117,333.]

Valuable meeting time was wasted as the alderman read the dates, times, and locations of August’s ward events, instead of simply referring the audience to the ward calendar on her Web site.

Presentations were short and to the point. Commissioner Williams advised that his department would prefer that rat-baiting requests be made using the City’s online form rather than through 311 calls; this enables his staff to better track the requests.

With regard to the safety of Orthodox Jewish residents over the Sabbath, Sgt. Sisk said he had spoken with a rabbi from the Chicago Rabbinical Council on July 7, and that he was assured that it was permissible for those residents needing police or emergency assistance to use the telephone.

Sisk also advised that organizing block clubs and attending CAPS meeting will help with crime deterrence. He noted that he and another officer were distributing leaflets in one section of the ward, and he found “at least fifteen” homes he could have burglarized because residents had failed to lock doors and close windows–common sense safety precautions.

Residents who find graffiti are asked to take photos of it as well as report it on the City’s online form. This is important–the police can review the photos and determine if the graffiti is gang-related, kids fooling around, or just plain vandalism. E-mail the photos to Graffitti@CAPS24.org.

Then it was time for audience Q&A, and the issues raised were a lesson in how well the alderman knows her supporters.

The 50th Ward has recently been home to three homicides, including drive-by shootings. Thugs who live here make headlines being arrested for murder and serious crimes committed in other neighborhoods. The police have issued alerts for burglaries. Yet the first question from the audience came from affluent condo owners upset at being approached by panhandlers.

Horrors! They’ve crossed the bridge! They’re on our streets, asking for money! They walk in the middle of the street and one can’t turn into the driveways at Winston Towers! And it gets worse–they have cell phones!

The real crime, of course, is homelessness. People who live in condos are threatened by the less fortunate who live under bridges. People with cable, Internet, and smart phones don’t like the idea that panhandlers have access to emergency services, to the social service agencies that are struggling to get them off the streets, or to the job placement offices that might help them get back on their feet. No such compassion. They aren’t poor enough, with those government-issued cell phones that give them a measure of security and a sense that they, too, have value.

Useful suggestions were made: don’t give them any money and they’ll go away. Call the police. Know which corner they’re causing a problem on, because there are various jurisdictions in the area–Skokie, Lincolnwood, the 24th and 17th police districts. But keep calling. And be sure to ask to sign as a co-complainant when the police make an arrest. You’ll have to take time to go to court, but in time you will clear the streets and underpasses of those life didn’t bless as it blessed you.

There were many questions and comments about the Eid fireworks. This is the second year that neighborhood residents were subjected to overnight explosions lasting hours, and neighbors wanted to know why it happened again and why the police were unable to stop it. One woman said that when she called, she was told that the alderman had ordered that the police not intervene, a charge that the alderman vehemently denied.

There were complaints about heavy crowds in the street outside the mosque on Campbell, a residential street. What the responses boiled down to was that the police did the best they could. Sisk did suggest that perhaps some discussions could be initiated with mosque leadership before next year’s celebrations. He could not answer why that had not been done this year.

To be fair, it was clear he and the police were the designated scapegoats for the alderman’s failure to use her office to negotiate a peaceful and respectful way for our Muslim neighbors to celebrate the end of Ramadan. That failure indefensible, she said nothing.

There were questions about clogged sewers and standing water. Litherland said that, as sewers are being replaced and relined, they are being fitted with filters that slow  drainage; this is why there’s standing water in streets and alleys. He added that it is not considered a problem if water is standing for an hour or so, but is a concern if the water remains after 3-4 hours. In that case, a 311 call is in order. One resident noted that one reason for the pooling is that alley grades are not level; the alleys have sunk while the garages remain at grade, and this creates a natural pool for rainwater.

He could have added that the grooves cut into the alleys to permit drainage were in many cases paved over, wholly or partly, during the pre-election constituent services blitz.

The final question concerned the now-vacant lot at Pratt & Western. The alderman said that the building was torn down because it was unstable. There are no current plans for development. The property has been downzoned, and a community meeting will be required before any development can occur there. The same is true for the site at Western and Granville.

The meeting was carefully structured to minimize the alderman’s participation and avoid serious issues, like school funding losses, property tax increases, and the City’s budget and pension problems. Those important issues will apparently have to wait until 2016.

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