PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday October 8th, 2014, 5:31pm

Chicago Aldermen Approve IG Measure, Washington Park TIF; Elected School Board Referendum Gets Squeezed

Progress Illinois provides highlights from Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.

An advisory referendum about an elected Chicago Board of Education has once again been squeezed off the ballot. 

At Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting, aldermen approved three other non-binding voter questions for February’s municipal election ballot. Those questions involve whether employers in Chicago should provide paid sick time to their employees, whether public finances should be used in part to pay for elections and whether city employees convicted of domestic violence should have to obtain treatment.

Under state law, only three citywide voter questions can be on the ballot at a time. The Rules Committee quickly approved the three ballot questions on Tuesday after news surfaced that the Progressive Caucus planned to pull a procedural move at today’s meeting to call up stalled referendum legislation for an elected school board.

Mayor-friendly aldermen pulled a “political move to keep the elected school board off the table,” progressive alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti (2nd) told reporters.

Elected school board supporters have been trying since 2012 to get a citywide advisory question on the ballot, but their efforts have been thwarted each time. A referendum on whether voters support having an elected, rather than the current appointed, school board was also crowded off the March primary ballot after the council approved three other ballot questions involving guns and increased taxi cab rates.

Fioretti believes the “spirit of the Open Meetings Act was clearly violated” at yesterday’s Rules Committee meeting.

“When you go into a committee meeting, the issue is that the public has the right to know,” the alderman told reporters, adding that the Rules Committee had just one proposed ballot question, about earned paid sick time, on its meeting agenda. Ald. Joe Moore (49th) was the main sponsor of that proposal.

“Well, all of a sudden a substitute ordinance is imposed with two other additional referenda — which obviously was a nice procedural, political move by the administration — and what happens then is we weren’t able to get the elected school board on the ballot,” Fioretti said.

“I guarantee that nobody that walked in [the meeting] except for a few knew that substitute ordinance had additional referenda,” he added.

When asked to expand on his comments about the Illinois Open Meetings Act, Fioretti said, “Now it’s up to the Attorney General or others to decide whether the legalities of the Open Meetings Act was violated.”

He said a letter will be issued in the upcoming days to the Illinois Attorney General on the matter.

After the council meeting, reporters asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel why he apparently objects to having an elected school board question on the ballot.

In response, Emanuel said that the city does have an elected school board in the form of Local School Councils.

“We have elected school boards for each school,” he said. “And overall, we have the mayor, the CEO, the board, the principals in the building and the teachers accountable to meet the results that parents should expect in a high-quality school.” 

“As it relates to the school board and a process, there are Local School Councils,” the mayor continued. “As it relates to accountability for results, I don’t believe what we need right now is more politics in schools. We need accountability and progress, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

The three ballot questions were approved without a roll call vote.

Inspector General

Aldermen approved Emanuel’s proposal to expand the inspector general’s oversight and investigative authority to include the Public Building Commission (PBC).

To accomplish the switchover, the council gave the OK to expand the authority of Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office to additional city agencies. Currently, the IG’s office can investigate all city departments. The council also signed off on an “intergovernmental agreement” allowing the IG’s office to investigate the PBC.

“Moving from a contracted Inspector General to a full-time Inspector General will increase efficiencies and enhance oversight over the PBC,” Emanuel said in a statement after the meeting. “From rewriting the entire ethics code in collaboration with city council and the IG to achieving Shakman compliance, my administration is increasing accountability and changing the way Chicago government does business.”

Washington Park TIF District

With no debate, the Chicago City Council unanimously approved three ordinances to establish a controversial new tax increment financing (TIF) district in the economically struggling Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side.

Local Ald. Willie Cochran (20th Ward) and other proponents of the new TIF district say it will help revitalize the area and spur new housing developments and other community investments.

Chicago’s TIF program is “intended to help neighborhoods like Washington Park fill in those vacant lots, provide economic development, be a source to attract developers, [and] provide resources that can concentrate right on that TIF boundary,” Cochran told Progress Illinois before the meeting. “With that, we believe that we can help the homeowners who will be eligible for neighborhood improvement funds for their particular homes.”

But as Progress Illinois has reported, some Washington Park residents have expressed worry that their property taxes will go up after the TIF district is implemented, and as a result, people might be forced out of the neighborhood.

When asked about those concerns, Cochran said that is a “typical response when critics talk about TIFs.”

“I have no TIF history that will tell us that any resident has ever been moved out because of a TIF that has been established in a ward,” he said. “If we’re talking about improving our communities, and we are investing in the homes that are getting the neighborhood improvement funds, and we are invested in those businesses that are getting small business financing grants, then there is going to be some impact on the property values. But it’s not going to be such that it would create a circumstance where people would have to move out or sell their property.”

The new Washington Park TIF District will be generally bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east, the Dan Ryan Expressway on the west, Garfield Boulevard on the north and the Chicago Skyway on the south. The proposed district, which includes a swath of industrial land, also encompasses the 351-acre Washington Park, according to city TIF planning documents.

An estimated $25 million would be available for eligible project costs over the life of the proposed Washington Park TIF District, with $5 million for public-sector upgrades and $3 million for land acquisition and preparing properties for redevelopment, among other uses outlined in the documents. Another $13.5 million would be used to revamp existing public or private buildings and help cover costs associated with affordable housing construction.

Cochran was asked whether there are specific TIF projects currently under consideration for the area. He said one project, the K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center, which is planning a mixed-use development, “is looking to take the possible course of getting some TIF money.”

Cab Driver “Fairness” Reforms

Emanuel along with several aldermen introduced a “taxi driver fairness” ordinance Wednesday designed to lift the income of cab drivers. The ordinance, sponsored by Alds. Anthony Beale (9th), JoAnn Thompson (16th), Emma Mitts (37th) and others, is part of a number of reforms that come in response to concerns raised by taxi drivers demanding better wages and working conditions.

The ordinance would reduce lease caps for alternative fuel vehicles after their first model year. The lease rate would drop between 10 percent to 20 percent under the measure. The leases of about 3,700 vehicles, or about 56 percent of the taxis in the city, would be impacted by the ordinance, according to the mayor’s office. Under the measure, the maximum $1,000 fine for driver violations, such as traffic tickets and rider complaints, would be lowered to $400. The ordinance would also establish a universal taxi smartphone app that would connect drivers to riders.

Additional “taxi driver fairness” reforms will be accomplished through regulations issued by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, according to the mayor’s office. The ceiling on credit card fees assessed to cab drivers will be reduced from 5 percent to 3 percent. Cab companies will also have to share advertising revenue in the form of lease reductions for drivers, among other regulatory changes.

In May, the Chicago City Council approved a ordinance that imposed some regulations on ride-sharing companies, including a number of safety and oversight measures.

“Throughout that discussion and debate, the individual taxi drivers had concerns,” Emanuel said after today’s council meeting. “I think we’ve met their concerns that they’re going to see more money in their pocket and the consumers and travelers that rely on taxis or … rideshare they will have an insurance of the safety, oversight, and comfort of their ride.”

“We did it with my commitment that we’re not going to increase fares,” the mayor added. 

Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Council 31 worked with the administration to find ways to provide relief for cab drivers, said Cheryl Miller, a taxi driver with the group.

“These are some very encouraging steps that they’re introducing,” said Miller, a cab driver in the city for 15 years.

“Some drivers right now are paying over $800 a week for a cab,” she added. “That’s just for leasing the cab. That doesn’t include gas and everything. So you can see that’s rather onerous. So by reducing that [cap] it will provide relief, I think, of about $100 a week for drivers, which is impressive.”

A universal smartphone app for taxis would also help cabs “become more competitive” with ridesharing services.

“The app is one aspect of making it a level playing field” for cab and rideshare drivers, she said.

Ban The Box

Private employers in Chicago with 15 or fewer employees would be prohibited from asking job applicants about criminal history during the initial stage of the hiring process under an ordinance introduced by Emanuel and a group of aldermen Wednesday.

The proposed city ordinance comes in response to a law signed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in July requiring private employers in the state with 15 or more employees to evaluate a job applicant’s skills before asking about criminal history. The proposed Chicago measure would ensure that private employers of all sizes adhere to the hiring measure.

The city of Chicago removed the criminal history question from its municipal job applications back in 2007. The proposed ordinance would also extend the city’s existing “Ban the Box” hiring protections to its sister agencies. 

“Too often, qualified people never receive a fair shot at entry-level job opportunities simply because they are forced to check a box on a job application and acknowledge a prior arrest, even if it has no bearing on their ability to do the job,” Emanuel said in a release. “We need to remove hurdles like this to ensure everyone in every neighborhood has the opportunity for a good job and a real path to the middle class.”

Social Impact Bond Program

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Emanuel introduced a measure seeking council approval to issue about $17 million in “social impact” bonds to expand pre-kindergarten education to more 2,600 Chicago Public Schools children over the next four years. During the current academic year, the Social Impact Bond Program will be brought to six schools “serving low-income families” in communities with “a shortage of publicly funded, high quality pre-K seats available,” according to the mayor’s office. Those schools include Jose de Diego Community Academy; Hanson Park Elementary School; Genevieve Melody Elementary School; Ferdinand Peck Elementary School; Velma F. Thomas Early Childhood Center and James Wadsworth Elementary School. The program will later expand to more schools.

“Chicago’s nearly $17 million Social Impact Bond Program is structured to ensure that its lenders, the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund and Northern Trust as senior lenders, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation as a subordinate lender, are only repaid if students realize positive academic results,” a release from the mayor’s office reads. “The Program’s goals include: increasing Kindergarten readiness, improving third-grade literacy, and reducing the need for special education services.”

$1 “Large Lot” Land Sales

Emanuel introduced an ordinance to get approval for 322 “Large Lot” land sales in Englewood for $1 each. The 322 vacant and city-owned parcels would be sold for $1 through the city’s Large Lot Program to property owners who have already successfully applied for the initiative. If approved, these would be the first “Large Lot” sales since the program launched in March. The typical parcel to be sold is 3,125 square feet, according to the mayor’s office.

Those who applied for the program were required to own property on the same block, be current on property taxes and have no financial obligations to the city of Chicago.

“These lots will help local residents directly invest in their homes and neighborhoods, either as side yards, gardens, for beautification, or for other productive purposes,” Emanuel said in a statement.

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