News & Politics » Politics

Who Wants to Be an Alderman?

In a showy nod to transparency, Mayor Daley called for applications to fill two midterm vacancies in the City Council. But the real selection process was as opaque as ever.



By law the mayor of Chicago is entitled to appoint replacements to open City Council seats, and on Monday Mayor Daley tapped businessman Proco "Joe" Moreno as the new alderman of the First Ward and state rep Deborah Graham as the new alderman in the 29th. Daley said he and his aides had interviewed 44 people for the posts after soliciting applications online, a process that left him confident he'd ended up with the best candidates available. "Clearly more people are getting their information from the Internet and in this case we used the city's Web site as another vehicle to reach a wider audience," he said. "It was very, very interesting for me."

Back in the old days—like, last fall—Mayor Daley would fill an opening by talking with a few people behind closed doors and then announcing his choice when he was good and ready. But recently even Daley has come under pressure to respond to demands for reform, and in February his press office announced that he would seek the public's input on who to appoint in the First and 29th wards.

But clearly the mayor didn't mean he intended to let the public actually see how the sausage gets made.

Assuming the City Council signs off on the latest appointments, Daley will have picked 19 of the 50 aldermen, typically on the recommendation of the departing officeholder and the ward's Democratic committeeman. For instance, when his ally William J.P. Banks, alderman of the 36th Ward, retired in August, he named Banks's driver, John Rice, to fill the seat. Whatever discussion preceded the decision happened out of public view.

When First Ward alderman Manny Flores quit in January to become chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, observers expected more of the same. But then, before Daley made any announcements about that opening, his council ally Isaac Carothers pleaded guilty to taking bribes from a developer. The mayor, suffering low poll numbers a year before facing re-election, was moved to call for reform. "I think after the Carothers issue, people are losing confidence in government," he told reporters.

Two weeks later, as Mick Dumke first reported on the Reader's politics blog, the mayor's office posted an online statement inviting applications for the two open council seats, which he's required to fill no later than 60 days after they become vacant. After the application deadline had passed, I sent the city's law department a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all the resumés sent to the mayor's office. Who would apply? How seriously would Daley consider this pool of applicants? Would he just pick whomever he was already favoring?

About a week later, law department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle e-mailed me: "At this time, I intend to deny this request," she wrote. "Individuals who apply for positions with the City of Chicago have an expectation of privacy and a trust that their names and personal information will not be shared with outside individuals or entities. To release that information would be a violation of that trust and potentially cause them irreparable harm which could include the loss of their current jobs. Additionally, release of this information could adversely impact the City of Chicago's ability to attract qualified and capable applicants if it is understood that any third party, even current employers, could request and receive a list of job applicants."

Except these are public offices that under normal circumstances would be filled through elections. Should an applicant who hopes to be appointed be treated differently from a candidate who hopes to be elected?

And the state Democratic Party had already posted the resumés of everyone who'd applied for the party's lieutenant governor nomination, left open when Scott Lee Cohen dropped out. "We intend for this to be an open and transparent process," state Democratic Party Chairman and house speaker Michael Madigan declared at the time.

Under amendments to the state's FOIA that went into effect in January, government agencies must forward copies of their FOIA denials to the state attorney general's office. Within days of my denial, an aide to Attorney General Lisa Madigan (the house speaker's daughter) ordered the release of the resumés.

"When this public office becomes vacant, it follows that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing who has applied for the position so that they may evaluate whether the individuals are qualified to represent a particular ward," wrote Cara Smith, Madigan's public-access counselor. "The public has a legitimate interest in evaluating whether these applicants have met [the residency requirement for aldermanic candidates to have lived in the ward for a year] before the vacancy is filled."

The city complied with the order about a week later, at 4:45 PM on a Friday. And not just any Friday—it was March 12, the last Friday before the March 16 deadline for Daley to name Flores's replacement.

First the mayor's office, which is on the fifth floor of City Hall, e-mailed out a press release listing the names of the 79 active applicants. Seconds later, on the sixth floor, officials with the law department handed me and other waiting journalists paper copies of the applicants' resumés, cover letters, and letters of recommendation. We were told the materials weren't available in any electronic format.

Vanessa Hall, an assistant press secretary for the mayor's office, said 11 of the applicants didn't meet the residency requirement, though the city made independent verification infinitely more difficult by blacking out addresses on all the documents.

Neither the list of names nor the stack of materials included any information submitted by 18 candidates who, according to city officials, withdrew from consideration before the mayor made a decision.

Among those who still wanted the job were elected officials, city employees, people out of work, and at least one comedian.

"While I am sure that 95% of the time you would find me a willing partner in your efforts to further enhance the city, 5% of the time you would wonder why you ever appointed me," wrote Charlie Johnson, a self-employed financial analyst, in his cover letter for the 29th Ward gig. Johnson went on to thank the mayor for his "unusual but wise manner" of making an appointment.

Benjamin Alpert, a hedge fund analyst for Chicago-based Morningstar seeking to lead the First Ward, weighed in on some of the more contentious issues facing the city. "The recent privatization initiatives of the City Council, including the leasing of the Skyway and the Parking Meters, have been helpful in these tough times, but I question the length of these contracts and the bidding process which I believe did not maximize value for the city," Alpert wrote.

Others alluded to the lesser-known issues facing aldermen. "The City Council has been void of humor so long as I can remember," wrote a recommender for Miguel "Mike" Oquendo, who works for the Chicago Fire Department and runs his own comedy production company. "I am certain with your selection of Alderman of the 1st Ward, not only will they get an astute service provider and committed public servant, but they would greatly benefit from a little bit of laughter and comedy relief in the City Chambers when conducting serious business of the city!"

Some applications hinted at the applicants' clout. Jesse Ruben Juarez, now the First Ward Democratic committeeman, included in his application a handwritten note from Daley supporter and Cook County Democratic chairman Joseph Berrios. "Ken, please pass this on for consideration," Berrios wrote. Ken would be Kenneth Meyer, special assistant to the mayor. Juarez told me he had an interview with Meyer and Joan Coogan, the mayor's director of intergovernmental affairs, but no "formal sit down" with Daley himself. "I just ran into him here and there," said Juarez, who once served as a consultant to Flores.

Flores wouldn't say whom he'd spoken with about his old seat. But Juarez said he and Flores met and talked about two candidates: Raymond Valadez, who'd served as Flores's chief of staff, and Joe Moreno, the vice president of a graphic arts and publishing company. Moreno has participated in a Hispanic leadership program sponsored by the United Neighborhood Organization, which has close ties to the mayor, and since 2004 he's given more than $16,000 to Flores's campaign fund, state records show.

"I sat down with [Flores] to support people who came from our [ward organization]," Juarez said. He wrote a letter of recommendation for Moreno and Valadez but then threw his own hat in the ring. "I decided to submit my name in case the other two didn't get it," he said.

City officials wouldn't go into detail about how applications were vetted. Hall, the mayor's assistant press secretary, said Daley's staff interviewed "all the eligible candidates." But Hall wouldn't discuss the interviews, other than to say Coogan conducted some of them. Coogan wouldn't speak for this story.

Hall also said the mayor's staff eventually made a list of the "most qualified" applicants, which she defined as people who are "active in their community, perhaps they have legislative experience, and they understood what the job entails."

Many of the applicants were just as reluctant to talk about their interviews. Reverend Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, has been a vocal critic of Daley and even ran against Carothers in 2003. After applying to be 29th Ward alderman, he said, he met with Daley "and it was very formal. . . . I don't think I should talk about that because it's over and done." Hatch congratulated Graham but added that she seemed to have the kind of political background Daley always looks for in his appointees. "I don't know what an application process was meant to accomplish if he appointed Graham," he said.

Bernard Cobbins Jr., who works for the city's Department of Family and Support Services, said he met with a representative from the mayor's office for an interview that lasted around 30 minutes. Cobbins, who applied for the 29th Ward position along with his wife, Sherry, wouldn't give the person's name. He said he was asked about his "knowledge about campaigning and the political process" and what his strengths and weaknesses were in those areas.

Cobbins praised Daley for advertising the opening. "I think the mayor and his staff want to be committed to opening up this process to common people who want to serve the ward," he said. "It is unconventional, but it's an effort to be transparent so other people who might not be considered can be considered."

Whether they were is an open question. Graham—who in addition to representing the 78th District in the state house already works for Daley in the city's community development department—forwarded a recommendation from a community activist who wrote, "There is no doubt that she would prove an asset to the city council and an ally that you could count on when faced with tough and/or unpopular decisions." And in his cover letter, Moreno assured the mayor, "I believe you will find that my principles and vision strongly match your principles and vision for the City of Chicago. I respect your accomplishments and vision for our great city and I look forward to becoming a strong partner of yours as we work on behalf of the residents that we both love to serve."   

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment