Former alderman John Arena hired for planning department job despite city hiring freeze
by BRIAN NADIG
Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th) is puzzled how former alderman John Arena began a $123,996-a-year-job this week as senior advisor in the city Department of Planning and Development amid a citywide hiring freeze imposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“The residents of the 45th Ward are very disappointed in Mayor Lightfoot’s decision, which goes against the hiring freeze, sheds a bright light on patronage hiring and goes against the promises she made while campaigning for mayor … to end business as usual (in City Hall),” Gardiner said.
In a statement, the planning department said that Arena’s hiring did not violate the hiring freeze, which Lightfoot implemented in August due to the city’s budget woes. “The city had been in conversation with the candidate (Arena) since prior to the announcement of the hiring freeze,” the statement said.
“John’s background as a former alderman and long-time advocate for thoughtful planning and housing development make him uniquely qualified to serve the department as it develops comprehensive strategies to invest in and grow Chicago neighborhoods,” the department said.
As alderman, Arena contended that his ward needed an influx of affordable housing to help end segregation on the Northwest Side. Arena supported a controversial housing project at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. which will bring 30 CHA-subsidized apartments to Jefferson Park. Many Northwest Side residents opposed the project.
Gardiner contends that Arena was being considered for a position in a different department prior to the hiring freeze and should not have been hired for the planning position. Over the summer, a game of political chairs led to the appointment of state Representative Rob Martwick for a senate seat, in turn for the 45th Ward Democratic committeeman Arena-backed candidate Lindsey LaPointe to take over his rep post. Arena, reportedly, was eyeing the state job or a city job. Arena made close to $110,000 as alderman, according to the city.
Gardiner, who defeated Arena for the ward’s aldermanic seat in February, also said that the “The citizens of Chicago should demand that Arena return the exorbitant amount of campaign contributions he’s taken from developers” given that the department deals with developers who seek zoning changes. Gardiner recently announced that he would not take contributions from those seeking a zoning change in the ward.
As alderman, Arena often used his campaign e-mail when discussing zoning issues with developers and accepted about $50,000 in campaign contributions from developers and owners of properties which were under consideration for a zoning change.
That includes about $18,000 from entities related to a developer who was later federally indicted in connection with an investigation into Alderman Ed Burke (14th). Election laws do not prohibit aldermen from accepting campaign donations from those seeking zoning changes. Lightfoot has said that she would donate to a nonprofit organization the $500 she received from the developer.
It is not clear if Arena will be allowed to accept donations from developers while he is employed in the department. City employees must adhere to the city’s ethics ordinance and cannot hold outside positions that are considered to be in conflict with their city employment, according to the mayor’s press office.
Arena’s first day on the job was Monday, Sept. 30, and in the position he will be focused on neighborhoods on the South and West sides that are underserved with investment, according to a statement from the planning department. Arena will be implementing projects that help achieve neighborhood goals, the statement said.
A Lightfoot spokeswoman said that despite Gardiner’s objections, several aldermen support Arena’s hiring and that Arena’s background will be beneficial to the city’s development and housing goals.