Arena, Garrido discuss heated aldermanic race

by BRIAN NADIG

The two candidates in the runoff election for 45th Ward alderman did their best to discredit each other with attacks during an 80-minute debate on March 17 at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

Alderman John Arena, who is completing his first term in office, is being challenged by Chicago police lieutenant John Garrido. The race is a rematch of the runoff election in 2011, when Arena defeated Garrido by 30 votes.

None of the four candidates in the Feb. 24 municipal election received more than 50 percent of the 13,008 votes cast, forcing Arena, who got 45.5 percent of the vote, and Garrido, who got 39.7 percent of the vote, into a runoff. Michelle Baert, who has since endorsed Garrido, got 13.3 percent of the vote, and Michael Diaz got 1.6 percent.

The most heated exchange at the debate, which was attended by about 225 people, came when the candidates were allowed to ask each other one question.

Garrido asked Arena if his "combative and dishonest behavior" led to 55 percent of the voters choosing a candidate other than him in the municipal election, while Arena asked Garrido why he violated election law by promoting store discounts to voters.

Garrido said that Arena made a false accusation when the alderman tweeted on election day that his opponent placed "fish bait" at the entrance of Arena’s campaign office and that on Feb. 21 Arena confused voters by telling them in an e-mail message that he was leading in the early voting results with 49.2 percent of the vote. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners did not start to tabulate votes until the polls closed on Feb. 24.

Garrido also read several newspaper headlines, including one from a story that said that Arena was at odds with the Jefferson Park Advisory Council, and a portion of a Chicago Sun-Times endorsement of Arena in which the newspaper stated that Arena’s combative nature hurts his effectiveness "in the ward and at City Hall."

Arena said that his job as alderman requires him to question city policies and to examine the performance of city-funded agencies, including local chambers of commerce, to ensure that the taxpayers receive the proper services. "I will demand from them the best," he said.

Arena said that the economic stagnation in the ward over the two decades before his election in 2011 is no longer, saying that 80 new businesses have opened in the ward in the past 4 years.

Arena charged that as an attorney and a police officer Garrido should have known that it is illegal to offer anything of monetary value to voters and that the error in judgment brings into question Garrido’s ability to evaluate the tough issues which aldermen face. "If he didn’t know, he should have asked," Arena said. "It is perfectly clear in the statute."

Garrido said that the election code is unclear and that it is not unusual for businesses to offer discounts to those who have voted. He said that the flier promoting the 10 percent discounts was removed from his Facebook page after a short time and that he is not aware of anyone who received a discount by presenting their voting receipt to a business listed on the flier.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office issued cease and desist orders to halt the discounts several days after the election. However, Garrido said after the debate that he is not under investigation by the state’s attorney’s office or the election board and that the vote-buying accusation is an attempt to distract voters from the issues.

The candidates also were asked if the contributions they receive from unions would affect their ability to resolve the city’s pension crisis. Each pointed out a potential conflict for his opponent.

Garrido said that the Service Employees International Council Political Action Committee has spent approximately $750,000 on Arena’s campaigns in 2011 and 2015. "That’s a lot of money," Garrido said. "Whose interest is he protecting?"

The largest political contribution to Garrido’s 2015 campaign is $20,000 from the Fraternal Order of Police. "I’m sure they want a police officer representing their interest," Arena said.

Arena said that he has voted against three of the last four city budgets because they failed to address the pension problem and that the "Progressive Caucus" in the City Council to which he belongs has annually presented proposals for alternative revenue streams for the city. Arena said that one option is the "LaSalle Street Tax," which would create a service fee on financial transactions at the city’s options and mercantile exchange markets

Garrido said that the city should explore using funds from tax increment financing districts to help meet its pension obligation and that a casino could be established in which all of the net revenue would go toward pension funds. "Some of the pensions are as low as 27 percent funded," he said. "They should be up to around 90 percent."

Garrido said that he does not support a property tax increase as a measure of addressing the pension crisis. "(Arena) is on record of saying property taxes is on the table, and that is definitely a problem as far as I’m concerned," Garrido said, referring to an article that was posted online.

In the article, Arena did not rule out a property tax increase, but he has said that resolving the pension problem should not place a burden on working class Chicagoans and that a suburban commuter tax and a higher tax on the wealthy should be examined.

On development issues, Garrido said that the owner of several gravel parking lots near Lawrence and Laramie avenues in the Jefferson Park commercial district should "fix the lots up, make them presentable and either do something with them or sell them." Buildings on the lots were demolished about 10 years ago, and there are reports that a four-story retail-residential project is being planned for some of the lots.

Arena said that Garrido has not offered any vision for the parcels. "Going to the developer and saying ‘pave this, put plants on it,’ does nothing for us," he said. "What does that do from a property tax standpoint?"

Garrido said that paving the lots does not solve the problem that but the city should hold the owner accountable and motivate him to build on the lots. "They have been sitting empty for the 3 1/2 years he has been here," Garrido said.

Arena said that a mixed-use development for the properties would be appropriate and that he has had conversations with the owner and with residents who live behind the lots about the appropriate scale of any project that would be built there.

Arena said that the redevelopment of the Six Corners shopping district has been helped by the creation of a master plan that included community participation. "Here, we need to do that in Jefferson Park," he said.

Garrido said that another option for the parcels is selling them to a group which has expressed interest in building a photography museum on Lawrence Avenue. Some of the lots are owned by the city, but most of the vacant land is owned by the Mega Group, which also owns the 10-story Veterans Square, at 4849 N. Milwaukee Ave. A plan to build a 10-story development on the site was dropped due to opposition by area residents.

Garrido said that he opposes a proposed 48-unit apartment building at Long Avenue and Argyle Street and that he has signed a pledge not to rezone the property. Arena said that he has worked with the developer to reduce the project from its original 60 units and that he has asked for further revisions based on feedback from residents.

Arena and Garrido both said that they do not plan to endorse a candidate in the mayoral race.

The runoff election will be held on Tuesday, April 7, with early voting available from March 23 to April 4.

The election will occur during spring break for many schools, and the candidates have said that getting their supporters out for early voting could be key to winning the election.

The debate was sponsored by the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce, the Six Corners Association and Nadig Newspapers. It was moderated by Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader.

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