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Endless War

The latest round in the battle for Rogers Park is over who gets to run a Park District community center.



More than a year has passed since 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore edged out challenger Don Gordon by just 251 votes in last April's aldermanic runoff. But in Rogers Park, political battles never really end—they just move on to other fronts. Right now the warring factions are fighting over the Park District's Gale Community Center, a recently completed facility at Howard and Marshfield.

On one side you have Moore, a five-term alderman. On the other are Gordon, Gale Park Advisory Council president Eva McCann, and just about every other steadfast Moore opponent in the ward—and there are many.

The fitness and recreation center, conceived in 1995, had three different ground-breaking ceremonies over the decade that followed. "There were delays from trying to cobble together money to pay for it," says Moore, and then "with successive Park District administration superintendents—Forrest Claypool, David Doig, and Tim Mitchell—we had to reintroduce the idea."

By 2005 Moore thought the project was a go, but then came another hurdle: "The Park District forgot to secure the necessary zoning," he says. "That gave the contractor an opportunity to get out of the deal. The price of steel went up, the contractor wanted more money. The Park District said no. And they had to rebid the contract."

In March 2007 construction finally began—just in time for an election-eve photo op of yet another ground-breaking. The center was completed a year later. Originally budgeted at $5 million back in the 90s, it ended up costing twice that in state and city funds and charitable donations, Moore says. The 18,325-square-foot facility contains a gym, a fitness room, locker rooms, two meeting rooms, and offices.

But it's still not open, and it's not clear when it will be.

The Park District was set to let the public in—it had even tentatively selected a staff of eight, including a director—when it discovered the gym floor was buckling. "It wasn't the whole floor, just a part near the door," says Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the city's Public Building Commission, which oversaw construction. "There was a buildup of snow drifting in through the door, causing damage to the floor when it melted." According to Smith, the contractor repaired the floor at no extra charge: "We hadn't taken delivery of the building yet, so the contractor was responsible for fixing it."

By mid-July the floor was fixed and the building ready to be occupied. But by then there was a heated debate about who should run it.

According to Moore, in April a couple of ward residents—Richard Gregory and another of Moore's recent aldermanic opponents, Jim Ginderske—came to him with the idea of having the Boys & Girls Club operate the center. "The Boys & Girls Club has a center in the Lathrop Homes, but with the CHA's Plan for Transformation it was clear their constituents were moving," says Moore. "Their mission is to serve—it made all the sense to move it to the Gale Center."

Moore says he brought the idea to Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell's attention. "Tim loved the idea," says Moore. "How can you be against the Boys & Girls Club? They do a great job."

By May the Park District and the Boys & Girls Club were, according to Moore, negotiating a contract under which the Park District would pay the club about $100,000 a year to run daily programming at the center. "All the details haven't been worked out," he says. "They're still negotiating."

Most of this was going on behind the scenes. McCann and her allies on the local park advisory council knew nothing about the proposed deal with the Boys & Girls Club until a June 5 meeting with the alderman. "We were discussing what the [center] would be named," she says. "At the end of the meeting, Joe Moore nonchalantly said, 'The Boys & Girls club will be managing the program.' I was stunned—that's the first I'd heard of it."

Almost overnight the community center's management turned into a hot-button issue. According to Moore, McCann and other advisory committee members are against the idea simply because he's for it. "Their opposition is totally political," he says. "Any idea that is supported by me is automatically opposed by them."

McCann counters that Moore probably endorsed the idea to ice her group out of any supervisory control of the center—not that the advisory council has any formal say on matters. "Joe turned this into a political issue by not coming to us in the first place," she says. "No one is against the Boys & Girls Club. But it's a private organization taking over a public building on public land that was largely built with public funds. A public facility should not be run by a private organization."

McCann says Moore and the Park District should have been up front about wanting a private group to operate the center. "The Park District shouldn't fall into the habit of awarding contracts behind the advisory council's back," she says.

At the very least, the Park District should have sought competitive bids, something it's obligated to do for contracts of more than $10,000 a year.

On July 9 McCann attended the Park District's board meeting to protest. Dale Jackson, an organizer for SEIU, the union that represents Park District employees, was there too. "I'm at the meeting and [McCann] says, 'We don't want the Boys & Girls Club running Gale Park,' and I look up at Tim Mitchell because this was the first time I'd ever heard anything about this," says Jackson. "And Tim sort of looks at me and shakes his head—like he's got it under control—and he says to Eva something like 'We'll look into it,' like he wants her to be quiet."

Two days later Mitchell ushered Jackson and several other SEIU leaders into his office at the Park District's Streeterville headquarters. "Basically he was finally telling us about something he should have told us about way back in April," says Jackson. "And he wanted to strike some sort of compromise."

"No one ever said the Boys & Girls Club will be running this," says Park District spokesperson Jessica Maxey-Faulkner now. "They brought a proposal to Tim. It was just a proposal. I don't know that I would call it negotiating."

The union's not about to drop its opposition—not with good union jobs at stake. As they see it, there's an important precedent here: if Mitchell can get away with farming out operations at Gale Park, he'll start doing it at other parks.

Furthermore, union officials feel betrayed by Moore, whom they supported over Gordon. SEIU was his largest single contributor in 2007, donating $40,000 to his campaign. (The AFSCME local contributed another $25,000, and the Chicago Federation of Labor contributed $25,000 as well.)

The dispute overtook last Tuesday's budget hearing at the Loyola Park Field House, run by Park District officials Brian Loll and Matt Marino. Before it was over Ginderske, there to defend the proposal, got into a toe-to-toe shouting match with an SEIU official who showed up to denounce it.

One of the deal's most vociferous opponents was Gordon, who played advocate for the union that spent so much money to defeat him. "I put that behind me," he says. "I empathize with these guys. The fact that they supported Joe—yes, it pissed me off at the time. But politics make strange bedfellows. They're suffering now—everyone can see what Joe did to them."

Now Moore is in the hot seat. Setting aside the issues of whether public facilities are best run by private entities or whether the Park District should have a more open process for awarding contracts, his choice is this: betray his old union friends or concede to the union and irritate his new friends at the Boys & Girls Club.

It seems Moore is looking for a face-saving way out of the dilemma. On Friday he sent out an e-mail assailing the McCann faction for distorting the issue and assuring his constituents that the Park District would staff the center. Saying they don't trust Moore, McCann and her allies held a protest rally Saturday, brandishing signs that said "Parks for the People" and "No to Joe."

Hey, no one said it was easy being alderman of the 49th Ward. Personally, I can't understand why anyone would want the job.v

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