It's a classic tactic of community organizing: to get elected officials in a public space, in front of constituents, to demand a signal of support or opposition on a set of demands. Such was the point of last week's "People's City Council Meeting," a raucous two-hour session organized by the Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition that includes neighborhood-based nonprofits, advocacy groups and some sectors of the local labor movement.
The meeting also served as a method to fire up the members of such organizations, perhaps girding them for policy and budget battles ahead. It set up a stark contrast between elite corporate actors and struggling working-class residents of the city: before getting to the demands of the night, a top hat-clad Mr. Moneybags, cheered by a "Millionaires' Club" in suits sitting left of the dais, debated issues like wage levels, education reform and how the city's tax increment financing dollars should be distributed with members of the groups represented in the crowd.
"Times are tough and I have a recommendation for the City of Chicago. First, get people to work for less. Second, get rid of the unions. Next, give me and corporations money," Mr. Moneybags said at one point, to boos. A park district employee countered his statement, arguing that "giving our tax money to million-dollar corporations does not lead to economic development in our communities."
After the theater, 18 members of the elected Chicago City Council gave short speeches and agreed to endorse, with their signature, a resolution that summarized the Grassroots Collaborative's hopes of the new council in four, broad points:
- Prioritizing families, neighborhoods and communities over an agenda that prioritizes banks, corporations and financiers.
- Finding 2012 budget revenue solutions that do not burden working families, and that makes banks and corporations pay their fair share.
- Enacting fundamental Tax Increment Financing District reform that leads to strong public schools, parks, libraries, affordable housing and city services.
- Coming together within 120 days to discuss how to keep working families a priority for our City of Chicago.
Some of the next steps following the meeting are still in formation. Twenty-second Ward Alderman Ricardo Munoz said after the meeting that community organizations and aldermen need to create a timeline for drafting and then formally proposing various resolutions and ordinances. "Now we have to begin to figure out how we put this into a legislative agenda," Munoz said.
Eric Tellez, a spokesman for the Grassroots Collaborative, said he anticipated that an ordinance Munoz sponsored during the last council term, to expand the city's living wage ordinance to cover concessions employees at the city's two airports, would be introduced into council once again. He also lauded a proposed recently submitted by 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell that focuses on the owners of vacant buildings across Chicago.
Other reform efforts could prove more thorny.
Take the city's TIF systems. Shutting down all of the city's TIF districts would generate an immediate fiscal boost for local taxing entities, including between $250 million and $260 million for the cash-strapped Board of Education, Tellez said, and $104 million for the city itself. The numbers are based on the estimated $520 million Chicago's TIF districts collected in 2009.
But members of the Grassroots Collaborative have also pushed for using TIF funds to pay for other policy ends--the Sweet Home Chicago campaign, which focused on earmarking TIF money to create affordable housing, for example.
Aldermen like having TIF dollars available for projects in their wards. Some endorsers of the Grassroots Collaborative's resolution, like 2nd Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti, have also signed off on, and defended TIF grants for large companies the collaborative criticizes. Fioretti backed TIF agreements for the Willis Tower, the Chicago Board of Trade and for Loop-based firms, for example.
And 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, the council veteran who led the fight for the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance, nonetheless argued that some degree of corporate welfare is necessary. Watch this clip from Burnett's remarks:
"It's a very complicated issue because of all the different experiences different groups around the table bring," Tellez acknowledged when asked about the demands on the TIF program.
He went on to say said his organization would push for a higher degree of accountability for the TIF program. That would include closing the LaSalle Central district, the district that has funded many of the much-criticized TIF grants to corporations.
Other aldermanic backers of the Grassroots Collaborative, meanwhile, agreed with the overarching sentiments expressed at the meeting. They also hinted at the difficult realities of the political process.
Alderman Dowell said achieving policy goals would require the audience's "sustained activism." Watch:
Forty-seventh Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar told the crowd he wanted to ensure political opponents were not shouting past each other:
Tellez said the groups involved with the Grassroots Collaborative are now encouraging their members to reach out to their local aldermen and press the issues discussed at last week's meeting to them.
He acknowleged Mayor Rahm Emanuel's critical importance in shaping policy discussions in the city but said, "What we want to do is primarily build a relationship with the direct connection neighborhoods have with city government--with the aldermen."
© Community Renewal Society 2011