Questions, Questions

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The City Council’s housing committee was breezing through its agenda on Wednesday—authorizing lease agreements worth millions of dollars, approving the sale of vacant city-owned land—when it was suddenly slowed up by a couple of people who had the nerve to ask a few questions.

Linda Korsah, an official with the city’s Department of Community Development, was detailing the administration’s plans to sell a vacant lot on the west side for $1 to the Peace Corner, a Catholic-based organization that provides recreation and job training to at-risk youth. The property, she said, had sat empty for years—the city had acquired it in 2001 after previous owners had stopped paying taxes on it—and now the Catholic group wanted to build a facility on the site that would include a gym and green roof.

It’s the sort of project that usually wins the quick approval of the Daley administration and, subsequently, the council. But 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin announced that she wanted a little more information.

Ray Suarez, the congenitally cranky northwest-sider who chairs the housing committee, sounded a bit surprised when she asked to speak—and even more surprised when she started raising questions. And for good reason—Mayor Daley first appointed Austin to her seat in 1991 after her predecessor and husband, Lemuel, died of a heart attack, and she’s been a loyalist ever since. For the last three years she’s chaired the council’s budget committee, where her job is to make sure the mayor’s budget proposals get through the council with as few changes as possible. But it’s hasn’t been the easiest week for Austin, whose ward includes the vacant lot where 16-year-old Derrion Albert was brutally beaten to death last Thursday, and she was obviously not in the best of moods.

Austin asked how much the city had paid for the property it was now planning to hand over for a buck. Korsah didn’t know, but she said the plot was appraised at $133,000. Austin then wanted to know how many people would work at the youth center. Seven or eight, Korsah told her.

“Hmmm,” Austin said. “That’s all?”

Austin’s colleagues were far more impressed with the project. Even though most admitted they’d never heard of the Peace Corner, they were moved to sing its praises after Korsah's briefing. “I just want to say thank you for all you’re doing,” alderman Ariel Reboyras told Father Mario Malacrida, the organization’s executive director.

“I want to thank you for what you’re doing as well,” added alderman Walter Burnett. “I think it’s great. God bless you.”

Even Suarez went soft for a moment. “I think this is a great project,” he said.

The committee was poised to sign off on it officially—“Alderman Stone moves to pass,” Suarez called out, though alderman Berny Stone hadn’t actually said a word. But an aide reminded Suarez that a member of the public had submitted a written request to speak on the issue, so he invited George Blakemore to the front of the room. “Good morning, George,” Suarez said, sounding dismayed.

Blakemore was well known to most of the aldermen. He’s distinctive looking—a wiry man with matted hair who totes around several plastic grocery bags full of his things—and he’s got an attendance record at City Council, county board, and water reclamation district meetings that compares favorably with some of the people who actually serve on those bodies.

“I had a question that concerned the development—”

“Okay, George, but you don’t get to ask questions,” Suarez informed him. “You can make a statement, but you don’t get to ask questions. And stick to the subject, please.”

“Then I have a statement—”

“You can make a statement, but you can’t ask a question.”

“Then I would like to know—and this is part of my statement about this development—I would like to know the minority participation in building this development,” Blakemore said. “The taxpayers of this city are allowing this nonprofit organization to receive this property for one dollar, and I’m wanting to know what is the minority participation for this building. And it think this should be the case with all development, prior to you approving, that you should know. Also, I would like to make a statement, that if you don’t know how much the city paid for this property and now you want to approve this—the city is us, the taxpayers, and you’re giving this property to a nonprofit organization. I’m wanting to know the percentage of young people who have attended this organization and the jobs these young people have actually gone out and received. These are questions that I as a citizen am entitled to know. Thank you very much.”

"Have a good day," Suarez snapped. But after a moment he pointed out that the project would be in 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith’s ward. “George, you have some great questions, but Alderman Smith is one guy who dots his I’s and crosses his T’s with regard to minority participation.”

Blakemore was already on his way out the door, but over his shoulder he said he'd like to know the name of any minority-owned firm that had been hired.

Suarez couldn’t hide his annoyance. “You know, George—”

Blakemore was gone.

Another city official told the committee that the project contractors hadn’t been selected yet, but that Peace Corner would have to comply with city rules requiring that 24 percent of the contracting work be awarded to minority-owned firms and 4 percent to women-owned firms.

“He walked out before you even spoke,” Stone growled.

Suarez didn't seem sorry that Blakemore was out of the way. “Hearing no further questions, Alderman Stone moves to pass,” Suarez said. “Any opposition? The ayes have it.”

But Austin was shaking her head and muttering. “OK,” Suarez finally said, as if in disbelief. “Alderman Austin wants to be recorded as voting no.”

Out in the hallway a few minutes later, Austin declared herself too damn pissed to vote yes. “I’m beyond mad as hell,” she said. She added that she had nothing against Peace Corner itself—she was upset that the administration hadn’t pressed the group to expand its operations from the west side to the far south side.

But is it really the city’s job to get a nonprofit based in another neighborhood to move down to hers?

“Yes, it is!” Austin boomed. She then launched into a lengthy diatribe about how the dismantling of public housing sent gangs and crime to her ward, which was now a leader in the number of residents who’d served time. She said she'd been asking the city for help for years and this was their response—to help a winning social service agency expand operations in somebody else's ward.

“Why do you keep dropping all this shit on us?” she yelled. Then she smiled. "So that's why I voted no."

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