CHICAGO—During three community budget hearings this month, Chicago union members and other regular residents voiced their fears about the priorities of the city’s proposed 2013 budget, which many worry could spell privatization, layoffs and service cuts. Those hearings were unofficial events, however, hosted by a handful of city councilmen in the Progressive Caucus, since Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to hold the customary evening hearings for the public to discuss the budget.
Someone who attended Chicago’s only official public budget hearing at noon on October 31 might have thought they were in an entirely different city. Nearly every speaker praised the budget and thanked the mayor for creating jobs and making the city more business-friendly. A plumbers union business agent described Emanuel as “such a strong supporter of organized labor” (an unusual perspective).
There were only a few critics, as most of the concerned residents who had flocked to the alternative hearings either didn’t know about the poorly publicized “official” hearing or could not leave work midday to attend.
Perhaps it didn’t matter, since more than half the city’s aldermen didn’t bother to attend. Also absent was Mayor Emanuel himself.
City Clerk Susana Mendoza kicked off the hearing by reading the official notice that had been published in The Chicago Sun-Times 12 days earlier: “The budget document is in pamphlet form and has been conveniently made available for inspection at the city clerk’s office and in the Harold Washington Library,” she recited, then left the room.
Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce vice president of policy Mike Mini thanked the mayor for eliminating the “head tax” that makes it more expensive to hire employees and for promising not to raise taxes. He said, “It’s more important than ever we enact policies to position ourselves as the most business-friendly city in America.” Chicago Hilton general manager John Wells praised Emanuel on the same grounds and noted that the hotel business is picking up and should be offering more jobs.
James F. Coyne, business manager of the of the plumbers union Local 130 UA, said the plumbers “wholeheartedly support Mayor Emanuel’s budget,” noting that jobs will be created by the city’s plans for badly-needed sewer and water system overhauls. Coyne also invited veteran alderman Ed Burke, whose grandfather co-founded the union, to sing a ditty about plumbers “protecting the health of the nation.” Burke recited the words: “So when your water is clear and bright, then you know your pipes are tight, and you know a union plumber put them there.”
AFSCME Council 31 policy and legislative specialist Adrienne Alexander was the first critical voice, presenting the union’s recent report on the impacts of closing six city mental health clinics. She noted that about 500 patients had “disappeared” from city records, disproportionately black and Latino staff had been laid off, and the remaining staff had inherited much greater workloads.
“Aldermen, at a point you’re not doing more with less, you’re just doing less,” Alexander said. “We ask you, don’t support this budget that continues the privatization and diminishment of public services.”
Then came Jorge Castellanos, wearing a purple SEIU T-shirt saying “Chicago needs a responsible bidders ordinance.” In careful heavily-accented English, Castellanos read from a statement:
“This summer I lost my job as a janitor at the water department when the city replaced my employer with an irresponsible contractor. When a new company took over they fired me and my five co-workers even though we had years of experience. The mayor’s office changed to a non-union contractor…That doesn’t make sense, we have good jobs with decent wages and have insurance. Now we are struggling. It has been four months and I still have not found a job. I’m worried about paying my bills and tuition for my son in college. The workers that replaced us are paid low wages and don’t have insurance. I don’t think that helps working families, to eliminate good middle-class jobs…It makes me sad that our mayor did this to hard-working Chicagoans. Some of us have been working at city buildings for five, 10 and even more than 15 years. This is why I’m coming here, you know…I tell Mayor Emanuel please don’t cut good jobs for the people. Thank you so much and God bless you.”
Castellanos’s remarks were met with complete silence. In contrast, previous speakers touting domestic-violence programs and community-development agencies had received gushing support and game questions from the aldermen.
Lonnell Saffold, institutional division director for SEIU Local 1, spoke next, pointing out that by hiring a cheaper contractor who laid off Castellanos and his coworkers, the city of Chicago would just be transferring costs to taxpayers in other ways. Deprived of their wages and health insurance, the laid-off workers will likely be relying on the county system for health care and collecting federal unemployment benefits.
“You don’t take people making $14 an hour and take their jobs, their health care to balance the budget,” Saffold said, calling for the city to pass the responsible bidders ordinance which would help protect union jobs under private contractors. “They did nothing wrong – they paid their taxes, they want to send their kids to school and have a good opportunity for the American dream. But their dreams have been shattered because someone decided it was a good idea to give their jobs to non-union contractors.”
The number of aldermen in the room had dwindled even more by the time George Blakemore walked up to make his comment. For years Blakemore has been a constant fixture at public meetings of every sort, offering his opinions and proposals — often calls for more resources for the African American community. Blakemore respectfully thanked the council for holding a public budget meeting but noted that “most of your comrades do not feel the need to be present at this public process.”
Dressed sharply in a brown suit and patterned tie, he noted that he used to wear ratty old clothes to the annual budget hearings, but he’d decided to start dressing up to lend a little more dignity to the process. “But it’s still the same thing, still this dog and pony show around the budget and still the same thing – the black community receives peanuts.”
The next speaker, who had “endured indignities” making his way downtown from a poor African American neighborhood on the West Side, gestured ruefully at the “empty chairs” and the chatting aldermen who “don’t even want to hear what I have to say because they’re holding another meeting over there.” Then West Side resident Paul McKinley denounced “a Caligula-style mayor who refused to face the public, who refused to face society,” before getting into a shouting match with an alderwoman over his allegations that she allowed a convenience store to openly sell bullets.
The aldermen were still muttering over McKinley’s outburst as the final speaker, Jeanette Hansen, made her points. A former patient at one of the shuttered mental health clinics, Hansen extolled the skills and compassion of her therapist, Eric Lindquist, and reminded the few aldermen who were paying attention that fellow patient Helen Morley had died after their clinic was closed. “There’s a stigma attached to mental illness, we know this,” she said. “But it’s an illness like any other, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain and it’s not our fault.”
Hansen noted that access to stable therapy and medication are key to giving mentally ill people a better chance to work and support themselves. She said she had worked for the city for 15 years writing parking tickets. She now relies on food stamps but hopes to become self-sufficient by making artistic trinkets and selling them with a peddlers’ license.
Her conclusion about the budget: “All I can say is pennywise and pound-foolish. Thank you.”
As soon as she finished speaking the moderator called on Ed Burke, the city’s most powerful alderman, to officially adjourn. But they had to wait, as he was on his cell phone.
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.