Document raise questions on protocol of city hiring freeze
by BRIAN NADIG
Documents released by the City of Chicago raise questions about whether Mayor Lightfoot’s administration followed its own hiring freeze protocol in the hiring of former 45th Ward alderman John Arena as deputy commissioner in the Department of Planning and Development.
In addition, aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and Carrie Austin (34th) recently raised concerns about Arena’s hiring at an Oct. 15 Zoning Committee hearing. The hearing was regarding the appointment of Maurice Cox as planning commissioner.
A spokesman for the city Department of Human Resources said that Arena’s hiring was being processed prior to the Aug. 20 hiring freeze, and the mayor’s press office has said that Arena was interviewed for several city jobs prior to the freeze.
However, copies of e-mails from Lightfoot’s chief of staff Maurice Classen and the budget and human resources departments that were released through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate Arena’s hiring process for the planning position was not approved to begin until Sept. 17.
Also, the hiring freeze directive states that job interviews could not be scheduled after Aug. 20 and that no new "A-Forms" would be approved for 2019. Arena’s hiring form was dated Sept. 25.
Exemptions to the hiring freeze are allowed, but Arena’s job was not on a list of those planning department jobs that the Office of Budget and Management approved for hiring after Aug. 20. The Aug. 29 list featured nine positions, including the planned appointment of Cox as acting planning commissioner on Sept. 16.
One Northwest Side alderman said the job given to Arena "sounded like a made-up position," while the first-term alderman who defeated Arena in the Feb. 26 municipal election expressed concern that the hiring freeze could have been violated.
"It’s politics as usual … same old, same old," Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th) said. "There’s a whole lot of rhetoric, but not a whole lot of action." Arena backed Lightfoot in the mayoral runoff election against Toni Preckwinkle, and Arena needs 2 more years on the city’s payroll to qualify for a partial pension.
At the committee hearing, Beale and Austin expressed concern about the possibility of Arena advising Cox about the development needs of the South and West sides. The hearing was on the appointment of Cox.
"How will (Arena) be a benefit to the Far South Side?" Austin asked. "(Arena) knows about zero of the Far South Side of Chicago."
Lightfoot’s press office and the planning department said on Sept. 30, the day Arena started his new job, that he would be working primarily on bringing new investment to the South and West sides, but at the hearing Cox said that Arena’s role like that of the other 165 workers in the department is being evaluated.
Cox testified that so far Arena has been "researching best practices" on development matters. Cox added that while he read Arena’s resume, he was not directly involved in his hiring and that Arena will have to "earn his place (and) trust."
"That appointment was on the way when I was onboarding," Cox said.
Beale raised concerns at the hearing that Cox’s three deputies were "all non-people of color" and said that he did not understand how in July Arena was apparently hired for a position in the city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and ended up with a job in the planning department.
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and several labor unions reportedly fought against Arena’s business affairs appointment, and the city reportedly decided to seek a person with prosecutorial experience for that role. The position includes going after businesses which violated the city’s ordnances on minimum wage and work schedules.
Meanwhile, Arena’s hiring also was brought up at an Oct. 28 budget hearing. It was reported that budget director Susie Park said that Arena was interviewed for the planning position prior to the hiring freeze but added that the freeze is essentially a "slow down" and a not "freeze."
Park was one of several members of Lightfoot’s administration who in mid-September signed off on the start of Arena’s hiring process, according to a Freedom of Information document released by the city.