by Mick Dumke
Alderman Roberto Maldonado deserves some credit: he's taken the first step toward fulfilling his promise to withdraw his application for a controversial zoning change on property he owns in his ward, the 26th.
Now he'll have to figure out what to do with the empty lots—which have been periodically overgrown with weeds and occupied by homeless people—without getting immersed in another conflict of interest.
A couple of weeks ago Ben Joravsky and I reported that Maldonado, the newest member of the Chicago City Council, was also the body's biggest property owner. While it's not illegal for a member of the council to own, develop, or sell multiple pieces of real estate, aldermen oversee zoning and land use policy within their wards—and are close acquaintances, and often political allies, with those who oversee it in other wards. Owning property creates the potential for troubling conflicts of interest.
Maldonado faced a conflict of interest the moment he was sworn in as alderman. Several weeks earlier he'd applied for a zoning change on four lots he owns in his ward at 1755-1757 N. Monticello and 1754-1758 N. Central Park, and at least some of the neighbors were opposed to the change. This meant that Maldonado would have final say on a controversial zoning change that he stood to profit from.
To his credit, he admitted to us that it wouldn't be right for him to be in that position.
We've received a lot of feedback on the story. Some commenters have cheered us on. Some have cursed us and called our mothers' names. Many have declared their admiration for Alderman Maldonado and accused us of ulterior motives, saying we made a story out of nothing.
We're happy to hear from all our readers, but we continue to think the story was not just fair but important. It's a defining article of the role of journalism to inform the public about the personal and business interests of officials charged with the public trust, be it Roberto Maldonado or Mike Madigan or Ed Burke. Aldermen aren't the only officials required to disclose their financial dealings and real estate holdings when they enter office.
I'm not suggesting Alderman Maldonado's dirty when I say that he's more likely to take action when the public urges him to do so than when it doesn't. After all, he's a public servant. So it is arguably a good thing that, after meeting with some of the neighbors and being contacted by us, Maldonado promised to pull the zoning request for the lots he owns on Monticello and Central Park. Now he's in the process of following through: a staffer for the council's zoning committee tells me that last week Maldonado submitted a letter asking that his application be yanked; barring any changes it will officially be withdrawn when the committee meets again on September 17.
The alderman has done what he said he would, and I am happy to note it.
I'm also happy to point out that after we asked him about the unpaid $3,941 tax bill on a property he owns on Division Street—and after he told us he hadn't missed any tax payments—Alderman Maldonado paid up. According to the treasurer's office he settled the balance on August 18. This too is a good thing, especially considering that over the next couple months he and his council colleagues will likely be deciding whether or not to raise taxes to plug the city's $500 million deficit.
We also wrote about his relationship with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, one of the biggest nonprofit housing companies in the city, and I'm glad I asked him about that too. "Anyone who's been a community leader or political leader in this community has a relationship with Bickerdike," he said. "The previous alderman had a relationship with them." In a swap in 2004, Maldonado sold a property to the company for $25,000 on the same day he bought one from it for the same price. He said he wanted to expand the property adjacent to his home.
Probably true that many political leaders have relationships with the developer, but not everyone was happy with the previous alderman's decisions about what and where Bickerdike could build. Over the last ten years Bickerdike has purchased at least 16 taxpayer-owned lots for no more than $10 apiece, according to city records. Given Chicago's affordable housing shortage, it's likely to acquire more in the coming years. Taxpayers should be able to count on Alderman Maldonado to carefully consider each of the company's transactions. How will he do, given how well he knows company officials? Good question.
And I have a few more, while I'm at it.
Alderman, what exactly are you going to do with the vacant property on Monticello and Central Park now that you've decided not to try to get it rezoned? You've said you want to sell it: if you do, will you support a zoning change that increases its value? Will the new owners be counting on it? If they want to put in a building or business—the lots are currently zoned limited manufacturing/business park—will the neighbors get a chance to weigh in on the plans? Can you guarantee that your decisions will be untainted by your personal interests and relationships? How?
What about the other six lots you own? If they remain empty, will you keep them up better than you have the lots on Drake and Monticello? Can you ensure you'll avoid weighing in on any decisions by the council or local alderman that affect the value of those properties? How?