Alderman Arena threatens to pull city funding for Jefferson Park Chamber if his demands regarding makeup of chamber board are not met
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
The Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce is facing the possibility of losing its city funding next year after the chamber’s board of directors voted at its Nov. 14 meeting against a slate of nominees for board members which Alderman John Arena (45th) demanded that the board approve as people he had confidence in to run the chamber.
The board meeting at the Gale Street Inn, 4914 N. Milwaukee Ave., became contentious over who should decide which chamber members should be on the board.
The chamber unanimously approved a list of 23 candidates for the board, which included Arena and all of the chamber members who Arena recommended. John Garrido, who lost to Arena by 30 votes in the 2011 aldermanic race, is one of three candidates who the board approved but who were not recommended by Arena.
Arena had informed the chamber earlier in the week that its city funding would be contingent on board approval of only the nominees who he considered qualified to lead the chamber. Arena also demanded that chamber secretary Brian Nadig, the co-publisher of Nadig Newspapers, and treasurer Gregg Kobelinski, the managing director of the Copernicus Foundation, resign as officers but said that each could continue to serve on the board. Both are former chamber presidents.
Several board members reported that in a Nov. 12 meeting with Arena, five chamber board members and three representatives of the city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, a department official instructed the chamber that it must adhere to the alderman’s wishes if the chamber expects to be funded next year.
Nadig said that city chief small business officer Roxanne Nava contacted him on Nov. 13 to clarify her remarks at the Nov. 12 meeting. He said that Nava told him that the department will not base its funding decision on whether the alderman’s requests are met and that the chamber’s chances of being funded are the same as any other chamber.
Nadig said that the department has asked the chamber to hire a permanent executive director by Dec. 15. The chamber currently has an interim executive director.
Arena said that he has lost confidence in the leadership of the chamber and that the candidates who he wanted on the board were chosen from a list of nominees who submitted their names for consideration by a Nov. 4 deadline set by the board. Kobelinski resigned as treasurer but is remaining as a director and as a member of several committees.
Nadig said that he refused to resign under the threat that the chamber would lose its funding and that he viewed the demand as an affront to the work that chamber members do for the community. He said that he was notified of the demand that he resign at 2 p.m. on Nov. 12 and given until 5 p.m. that day to do so.
Arena also did not approve the appointments to the board of Juan Aramburu of Odysseus and Jeff Morris of Open Trak, saying that they had no previous experience with the chamber. Arena also objected to the nomination of Omicron Technologies general counsel Mark Kestnbaum but decided to submit Kestnbaum’s name for consideration.
"Would a reasonable person continue to provide public dollars to fund a group that is not all that it is cracked up to be?" Arena said. "The level of failure here is epic. I want leaders here to be effective. I have to have confidence in this chamber, and you don’t just put people in leadership positions when they walk in the door."
Omicron owner Lionel Rabb said that the chamber asked his company to become involved in the organization and that Kestnbaum had attended numerous chamber committee meetings. Rabb said that both Morris and Aramburu work and live in the community and that the chamber should welcome their participation. Aramburu and Rabb both serve on the Jefferson Park Advisory Council.
Arena’s slate of candidates for 1-year director terms included Kestnbaum, Kobelinski, Mary Beth Gerlach of Safety Service Systems, Steve Forde of Republic Bank, Susan Jablonski of Jablonski and Associates, Dave Meyer of Battery Giant, Shanna Karamaniolas of Fischman Liquors, George Karzas of the Gale Street Inn, Dobra Bielinski of Delightful Pastries, Frank Suerth of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society, Bruce Barnes of the Jefferson Masonic Association, Alex Perry of Right Way Signs, Judy Skotzko of Biddy Tech, Lyn Hooley of Replica Chicago, Laura Hahn of LH Consulting, Jeff Merritt of Homestead Inspections and Dr. Caesar Lau.
The terms of Nadig and chamber vice president Nick Black of Mega Realty do not expire for another year.
The vote to deny Arena’s motion was 3-2, with three board members not voting. The chamber’s bylaws do not contain a minimum requirement for how long a nominee must be a member before being nominated to the board.
"I would not recommend funding to the current chamber because I don’t have the confidence of the chamber," Arena said. "This list will give me confidence. People don’t want to get involved in the chamber because no one believes in it and they don’t know what’s going on."
Arena provided copies of two e-mails which he said illustrate a lack of leadership in the chamber, which he said has dragged its feet on revising its bylaws.
In a Sept. 30, 2013, e-mail which Nadig sent to the Nominating Committee, Nadig wrote, "This board has probably violated the bylaws every year for the last 40 years when it comes to elections. Yes, we need to correct this. The bylaws committee should meet ASAP."
Nadig said that the bylaws are archaic and that they are virtually impossible to adhere to all of the time, and that the e-mail was written because there was concern about how the election process would be handled due to a missed deadline for submitting the nominations to the board.
The other e-mail was sent by Kobelinski to Arena on Aug. 1, 2012.
"I would like to think that you and I can respect each other’s viewpoints and come together to lead this community forward," Kobelinski wrote. "You are the political leader of the community. I am representing a large ethnic voting bloc in your ward. Brian and (Jeff Fest chairwoman Laura Hahn are) parts of the business community.
"We need to find a way to work together. John, I like you, and I know your heart is focused on the good of the community. No one is going to benefit from a continued war of words. I would like to continue to work with you, and I hope to continue to make my support of you as enthusiastic and public as I have in the past."
Arena said that he felt that the e-mail was a political threat. The Copernicus Foundation was founded in 1971 to represent Polish Americans. It headquarters is the Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center in Jefferson Park.
Nadig said that at the time of Kobelinski’s e-mail there was friction between Arena and some of the chamber’s officers over the management of "Jeff Fest," which is an annual music and arts festival that the chamber sponsors. Nadig said that Kobelinski felt that there was no reason that a group of community leaders could not work out their differences and focus on the welfare of the business community.
Nadig said that Arena has worked to help the chamber and that the chamber has embraced many of his ideas, including moving the festival from Higgins Avenue to Jefferson Park, 4822 N. Long Ave. He said that the chamber is working to incorporate some of Arena’s recommendations into a strategic plan which is designed to restructure the chamber and put an emphasis on revitalizing the struggling Jefferson Park commercial district.
Arena said that his focus is on having a chamber which benefits the community. He said that the chamber has not selected a new executive director since the former director left the post in August.
"I bring these items to the city and they ask me ‘Do you have the confidence in your chambers to perform their abilities?’ and in the case of this chamber, I say no," Arena said. "I have a single function and that’s to improve the community."
Nadig said that chamber has been very active in the community and that it has worked with city agencies to address problems of homeless and unlicensed nightclubs in the area and has worked with the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and the Jefferson Park Advisory Council to sponsor farmers’ markets. He said that the chamber has about 100 paid members, holds networking events, sponsors high school and college scholarships and is planning to make major improvements to its social media marketing in an effort to better promote local businesses.
Nadig said that the interim executive director has been meeting with businesses in the community and that the chamber will work with the city to publicize a Small Business Improvement Grant Program that pays for infrastructure improvements to commercial properties. He said that many business owners use the chamber as a resource when they experience problems and that the chamber recently formed a committee to seek to obtain streetscaping improvements for the commercial district.
Garrido, an attorney whose law firm joined the chamber this year, said that he feels that he was being excluded from the board because Arena does not want him there.
"I will not support this chamber if this recommendation is not upheld," Arena said. "My job as an elected official is to vet this chamber and other chambers."
"So as of right now, if we don’t take your list we don’t get the funding?" Garrido said. "Your recommendation comes with a threat."
The chamber received $35,141 in city funding this year, about 90 percent of which goes toward the executive director’s salary. The chamber’s total revenue is projected to be about $170,000, most of which is generated by and spent on "Jeff Fest".
Nadig Newspapers co-publisher Glenn Nadig said at the meeting that the city began funding neighborhood chambers of commerce under former mayor Jane Byrne about 30 years ago. Byrne used federal Community Development Block Grant funds to support chambers, but after it was ruled that those funds can only go to low- and moderate-income areas, the city began directly funding the chambers. Approximately 90 business organizations received funds from the city this year.
"This chamber has existed for years and years without getting funding from the city," Nadig, a former chamber president, told the board. "If you want to be independent, maybe you don’t need the $30,000. I’m sad to see what is going on here today."
The chamber was founded in 1934.
Nadig said that an executive director spends a lot of time completing paperwork that is required by the city and that without city funding a full-time staff member may not be needed.
Karzas, a former chamber president, said that he hopes the focus of the chamber will be on the future. "In my opinion the chamber has been weakening and getting ineffective, and we have to accept the fact that the world is changing," he said. "It’s not 1958 anymore, and we have to look at what we have done and move forward and ask ourselves have we been able to rally the troops."
Arena said that he does not have similar problems with other chambers of commerce in his ward. He said that he will discuss the matter with city officials and that he does not know if he will recommend that the funding will be cut.
"I will look at the possibilities," Arena said. "There are differences of opinion in the chamber, but politics is not my goal here. My goal is to try to engineer new leadership in the chamber."