Challengers go on the attack in lively 45th Ward aldermanic forum
by BRIAN NADIG
The three challengers in the 45th Ward aldermanic race were in attack mode against the incumbent at a Jan. 29 forum, while Alderman John Arena said that the ward has seen progress under his tenure.
Chicago firefighter Jim Gardiner charged that Arena “bullies” constituents and businesses and that he took advantage of his aldermanic position when he sought “free parking” at a police station parking garage near Wrigley Field when he was going to a Chicago Cubs game.
Chicago Park District regional manager Marilyn Morales challenged Arena’s claim that the Chicago Public Schools plans to open an early education center this fall at the former Saint Cornelius School. “That building is not going to be ready by fall,” she said. “No one from the public schools has been near Saint Cornelius” in recent months, she said. The project was announced in 2017 but has faced delays.
Former Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Robert Bank said that Arena demonstrated a lack of transparency when he failed to mention at a community meeting for the housing proposal at 5150 N. Northwest Highway that the city had entered into a settlement agreement with the property’s owners after Arena had the site downzoned and the owners subsequently sued. The downzoning stopped the initial plan to retrofit the existing building into a self-storage facility, and the settlement called for a housing development on half of the parcel and a warehouse on the other half.
Bank said that Arena refused to meet with the site’s owners while the downzoning was pending. “5150 is zoning abuse,” Bank said. “The purpose of zoning is to preserve the character of the neighborhood.”
Arena responded that it would have been “irresponsible” to allow the initial plan because it would have involved putting a “coat of paint” on a deteriorating building. He said that the housing development will provide an option for existing ward residents who are rent-burdened or who need accessible living.
“5150 is critical for economic development. It’s critical for bringing jobs,” Arena said.
In reference to the lawsuit filed by the site’s owners, Arena said, “You could read what you want in the court document, but it has nothing to do with truth in the real world.”
“It’s been two years having discussions large and small” with the community, Arena said of the Northwest Highway proposal.
Also at the forum, Bank said that he would abolish the “secret” advisory board which Arena uses on zoning matters and whose meetings are closed to the public, while Morales and Gardiner said that meetings of their advisory boards would be open to the public.
Arena said that there is a “wealth of resources” in the ward and that he uses several strategies to get input, including meetings with neighborhood groups in the affected area of the ward.
Gardiner said that residents feel “their voice” is not being respected in the decision-making process in the ward and that he would have representatives from each neighborhood in the ward elected to his zoning advisory group. He added that the planned 16-story building in Jefferson park is “excessive.”
Arena said that when he was first elected in 2011, he successfully fought against plans to reduce library hours from 48 to 40 and that several schools in the ward have received new athletic fields or playgrounds and that an annex has been constructed at Prussing School. He said that the “one-liners” attacking him at the forum ignore the reality of his efforts to bring positive change to the ward.
Morales said that she is known as “a problem solver” at the park district and that her experience overseeing park events and large staffs would bring new leadership to the ward. “We have an opportunity in a few weeks to elect a new voice,” she said.
Morales added that there is a need for affordable housing in the ward but that she is worried about whether Beaubien School can adequately handle the increased density planned for the school’s attendance area, where about 300 new apartments are in the works.
Bank said that as alderman he would explore an array of creative ways to spur economic development in the ward, adding that “five of the Six Corners are empty.”
The forum included a statement by Gardiner in which he described an order of protection which a former girlfriend sought against against him in 2017. He said that the matter was resolved with the issuance of a no contact order which has since expired and which he never violated.
“What I failed to understand at the time was that she had moved on and no longer shared the same feelings toward me,” Gardiner said. “To be very clear this was a civil matter in its entirety.”
Gardiner added that he resolved the issue in the “most respectful and least disruptive”manner to her and that he has “learned from (his) actions.” He said that as alderman he plans to be transparent in both his public and personal life.
The candidates were asked to name which other candidate they would vote for if they were not running. Arena said hat he would vote for Morales because the ward has never had a female alderman and Gardiner said he would support 19-year-old write-in candidate Jose Munoz, while the others declined to name their choice.
When asked if they would support the implementation of a city income tax, Arena said that “we have to look at all options” given the pensions crisis, while the other three candidate said that would oppose an income tax.
Bank, Gardiner and Morales said that would support term limits for aldermen, while Arena said that elections serve as term limits.
The forum’s moderator was Justin Kaufmann, who is co-host of the Steve Cochran Show on weekday mornings on WGN Radio.
The forum’s sponsors were the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, Jefferson Park Forward, Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce, Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association, Old Irving Park Association, Six Corners Association, Six Corners Chamber of Commerce, Portage Park Neighborhood Association, Copernicus Foundation and Nadig Newspapers.
(Photo by William Swanson)