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It’s an old aldermanic trick: You beat up on the commissioners and deputy commissioners when they present the Daley administration's half-baked ideas during public hearings, expressing outrage at the indignities heaped upon lowly taxpayers. Then you let the mayor do his thing anyway.
The maneuver turns into an art form during budget time, when aldermen demand reams of information (“Can you please provide the chair with the race, gender, home ward, and hiring date of every tree trimmer in the bureau?”) that’s potentially valuable but typically ends up having little impact on the budget or administration.
This year's budget hearings are at least a little different. Aldermen, truly freaked out that constituents will blame them for service cuts and slowdowns, are looking for answers under every rock they stumble across. "Some of us believe there is a little bit of overprinting that’s going on,” said the 46th Ward’s Helen Shiller, suggesting that city departments produce fewer copies of whatever it is that they produce [PDF].
Meanwhile, some city officials are less willing to serve as punching bags than they might have been in the past. Some have looked frustrated and defensive, but any wanting cues on how to duck, dodge, and get a few digs in of their own should have seen the legendary Lois Weisberg in action Wednesday morning.
Weisberg, the long-serving commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, had mostly been exchanging compliments with her City Council questioners until Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale asked her about money budgeted for "Expenses Related to the Operation of Millennium Park."
"Why are we constantly spending $8 million on Millennium Park?" Beale asked. "Is the Park District, are they kicking in any money?"
"Well, alderman, that’s not my favorite subject," Weisberg said. Originally, she went on, the committee that raised money from private donors to help build the park was supposed to have funds left over to run it. They didn’t and couldn’t, so now it’s the job of Cultural Affairs. "The $8 million—or most of it, anyway—is what it takes to maintain and operate the park. It has nothing to do with programming. It’s all about security, garbage, grounds."
"We can find $8 million to do landscaping, we can find $8 million for a private security firm, but we can not find money for our Park District to maintain the parks in our communities and we cannot find the extra police to put on the street," Beale said. "We can find $8 million to put into Millennium Park, which wasn’t supposed to cost taxpayers a dime—not a dime! And it looks great—don’t get me wrong. It looks great. But I guarantee that if we had $8 million to put into our parks they’d look great too."
"I agree," Weisberg said. "It’s a lot of money."
"My parks look terrible. My parks look horrible. I can barely get the grass cut on time. I mean, the parks are terrible that the people of the city of Chicago are using, but we’re spending $8 million for people who come from outside the city, so it looks great to them—"
Weisberg cut in. "Well, I agree with you except for one thing. Most of the people who come to Millennium Park live here. They come from every neighborhood in the city, and it’s the most mixed group I’ve seen anywhere in the city in my entire life, and we’re very proud of that. … These are people who come from the neighborhoods who can’t afford opera tickets, who can’t afford symphony tickets. So that is an unfair thing to say."
Beale started to speak, but Weisberg had more to say. "And no one more than myself—and you probably don’t know this, because you’re too young—no one has been more concerned about the parks. Many years ago I started an organization called Friends of the Parks for the very reasons you’re talking about. That really has very little to do with what we’re doing in Millennium Park. The Park District is a separate entity, and I’m very sorry to hear about your parks. But I hate to have anyone pick on Millennium Park." Weisberg thanked him for his concerns.
Beale’s southeast-side neighbor, Tenth Ward alderman John Pope, was next. "What can we do to get some of the arts into the neighborhoods, and specifically the Tenth Ward? Because besides some of these grants that are offered to public art, I don’t see much of a benefit down on the southeast side."
"It’s a good question," Weisberg said. "And a lot of it depends on the alderman. If the alderman really wants something in their neighborhood, we work with them."
Pope soldiered on, asking who was receiving the $1 million in arts grants handed out annually by Weisberg’s department.
"We get hundreds of letters thanking us for the small amount of money we're able to give them," Weisberg said. "Maybe some people don't know about it, but the most important person to know about it, and to encourage people to come to us, is the alderman, and I encourage you to do that."Pope thanked her. Then it was somebody else’s turn.