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It's Not Illegal to Be Obnoxious

A community activist is jailed after speaking 20 seconds too long at a Plan Commission hearing.

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If you ask me, Peter Zelchenko's outburst at the August 21 Chicago Plan Commission meeting was rather run-of-the-mill as far as City Hall eruptions go.

It wasn't nearly as disruptive as some of the goings-on during the Council Wars, when, for example, 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, bellowing at the top of his lungs, called then alderman Luis Gutierrez a "pipsqueak." In the 90s aldermen Dexter Watson and Ted Mazola almost came to blows on the council floor. More recently the mayor has lashed out at Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti and—shades of his father—cut the mike off on 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore rather than let him protest the overturning of the foie gras ban.

But of all the aforementioned belligerents, only Zelchenko, a community activist, was escorted out of chambers and arrested. It sort of makes you wonder what his real offense was.

The incident was the latest confrontation in an ongoing battle that began in 2006, when the Park District, without adequately notifying neighborhood residents (or, if you take her word for it, 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley) or getting the necessary approval from the Plan Commission, agreed to let the Latin School build a soccer field not far from the Lincoln Park Zoo. In exchange, the private school was to have almost exclusive use of the field. Zelchenko, who ran for alderman against Daley last year, is a member of Protect Our Parks, an ad hoc coalition that won a court victory forcing the Park District to terminate its deal with Latin and seek Plan Commission approval for the field. As a result of the suit, the Park District, not Latin, will pay for the field, and it will be open to the public.

So it's a happy ending, right? Well, not for Zelchenko and other members of Protect Our Parks, who don't want any field in this patch of Lincoln Park, no matter who gets to use it. That's why he and about 20 other north siders went to the City Council chambers for the Plan Commission meeting.

What they witnessed there was business as usual. The decisions of the Plan Commission, a mayorally appointed supervisory body, almost never buck the mayor's wishes. Eleven of its 21 members work or have worked for either the mayor or the City Council zoning committee; eight work for companies or nonprofits with city contracts.

Even procedurally it's rigged to favor the mayor's side. In this case, the Park District's witnesses—everyone from the lawyer to a representative for the artificial turf company—got to talk as long as they wanted to and use charts, pictures, graphs, and architectural drawings in support of their points. But when it was the public's turn, George Migala, the commissioner who chaired the August 21 meeting, laid down the law: remarks must be limited to three minutes, must stick to the topic at hand, and must not touch on points made previously.

About 30 or so people spoke, and opinion was pretty evenly mixed between those who want the soccer field and those who don't. Alderman Lona Lane, whose 18th Ward is on the far southwest side, gave the field her thumbs-up. An official with the local American Youth Soccer Organization said the city desperately needed more fields—about the only point on which everyone agreed. Bessie Karvelas, principal of Lincoln Park High School, pleaded for the field, noting that her school's field was the pits (but not pointing out that if it hadn't been for the lawsuit, her school would have been locked out of the new field). One resident said it was a shame that the Park District was only installing fields in rich neighborhoods, which compelled 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith, a commission member, to interject that in her Edgewater-based ward there were several soccer fields serving public schools with low-income children. One pro-field speaker, Bob O'Neil, invoked last spring's fight over the Children's Museum as he denounced naysayers who "are against all good projects."

"A lot of people protest things," he added. "What have they done?"

By the time it was Zelchenko's turn to speak, 20 other people had testified and, by his own admission, he was a little distracted. He never yelled, but his voice rose and cracked with emotion. "I should have stayed focused," he says now. "But I wanted to respond to things that had been said."

He started by saying he was lifelong resident of Lincoln Park and a soccer dad, then took a quick shot at the AYSO official ("You don't represent me," he said) before moving on to remind Alderman Smith of a private conversation they'd had months ago. According to Zelchenko, Smith had expressed disbelief—as had pretty much every other politico on the north side—at Alderman Daley's contention that she hadn't been notified about the proposed Latin Field until after the Park District had approved it.

"It's all about politics," he said—at which point Migala interrupted him and said he should limit his remarks to the pros and cons of the specific soccer field. Zelchenko responded that politics is always relevant in Chicago, and that in this case there was a perfectly good alternative location to put the field—at the old Near North High School.

Again Migala interrupted to ask that he stick to the topic.

"You, sir, are political," Zelchenko replied. He was about to continue when Migala said, "Your three minutes have expired."

Technically, they hadn't. I have a tape of the hearing, and having timed Zelchenko's speech, I can tell you that he was at 2:57. Count the time taken by Migala's interruptions—as Zelchenko insists you should—and he had at least another 12 seconds of speaking time. "The point is, I was ready to finish—they could have easily have just let me finished," says Zelchenko. "I wasn't going to take more than a few seconds."

But as he tried to conclude, his microphone was cut off—that old tactic again. Instead of walking back to his seat, Zelchenko kept talking—still not shouting, but loudly enough to be heard by the Plan Commission members. He denounced them as a rubber-stamp board and asked what they tell their children about what they do and how they sleep at night.

When he was finished, 20 seconds later, he walked to the back of the council chambers, where he stood listening to the next speaker. A police officer approached and told him to leave. He said no. The officer insisted, and Zelchenko walked with him out to the lobby. "I didn't want to leave, but I didn't want to interrupt the meeting," he says.

The police officer then asked him to leave the building. Again, he refused. "It's a public building, I wasn't doing anything wrong," he says. "I hadn't been loud or disruptive."

As he points out, other people had been allowed to exceed the time limit or, like O'Neil, wander from the specific issue at hand. "There's no reason for me to have to leave a public building just because I criticized the mayor's soccer field," he says.

Since he wouldn't leave on his own, the police slapped on the cuffs and hauled him away. He was taken to the lockup at 1718 S. State, thrown into a cell, and held for about eight hours.

He was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor; he has a hearing on October 15. "I don't believe the police will show up," he says. "They just wanted to punish me, and they did that by locking me up."

His allies feel he was kicked out of the chambers and locked up for the high crime of telling it like it is. "Peter was right—this is a political deal," says Tom Tresser, another member of Protect Our Parks. "It's absurd to say that you can't talk about how politics impacts policy in Chicago. Public policy is run around here like Stalinist Russia."

According to police department spokeswoman Monique Bond, the police report indicates that an unidentified complainant in the council chambers asked that Zelchenko be removed and says that he was "yelling obscenities." But he wasn't doing so in the council chambers, and a bystander backs Zelchenko's claim that he wasn't cussing in the lobby either.

Migala, Alderman Smith, and David Weinstein, another Plan Commission member, didn't return my calls. But planning department spokesman Pete Scales says Migala handled the meeting properly. "They give everyone three minutes to speak," says Scales. Zelchenko "was off the subject, and he was getting abusive to the commission members."

After the public testimony, the commission unanimously endorsed the installation of the field. If all goes according to plan, the crews will finish in October, right around the time Zelchenko goes to court.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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