Residents seek answers, accountability in aldermen’s first 100 days

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Before Rahm Emanuel became mayor last month, his team rolled out a transition plan. The 71-page document outlines a to-do list for his first 100 days in office, his first year and beyond, and includes a number of promises, including: cut $75 million from the budget, post a searchable city budget online and convene a committee to talk about food deserts.

“Change starts as a vision,” the report begins, “but to become reality, it needs to be embedded within a plan.”

Some West Side residents are questioning why they have not seen similar plans from their local leaders – especially after a hard-fought election that echoed with aldermen’s promises to bring change to struggling West Side wards.

With their new terms recently under way, AustinTalks asked Alds. Michael Chandler (24th), Jason Ervin (28th), Deborah Graham (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th) what they had planned for their first 100 days.

Ald. Jason Ervin

Only Ervin – the most junior of the four council members – responded to requests for a written statement or interview, providing both.

Ervin – whose 28th Ward covers a swath of Austin’s east side, reaching Central Avenue to the west, Van Buren Street to the south, Chicago Avenue to the north and Western Avenue on the east – named five priorities: public safety, expanding after-school programs, developing job training programs, redeveloping unused land and cleaning up neighborhoods.

He pointed to talks with new Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy about keeping a temporary influx of police officers in his ward; a meeting with CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard about the state of high schools; and – what Ervin described as the first order of business – street clean-ups, focusing on the once-thriving Madison-Pulaski shopping district.

“In order for us to attract development, to bring jobs, we can’t have our main shopping area looking like a tornado’s been through it,” said Ervin, who was appointed in January by then-Mayor Daley after longtime Ald. Ed Smith resigned. Voters elected him Feb. 22.

Ald. Emma Mitts

Chandler, Graham and Mitts – all incumbents or former leaders in their wards – did not respond to e-mails or phone calls.

Serethea Reid, a businesswoman and co-founder of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, said she’s troubled by what she sees as West Side leaders’ lack of accountability and “measurable objectives.”

“What is your vision, what is your plan for this area?” Reid said. “We don’t ever get any of that. They’re not offering up any plans, strategies, other than general things. ‘We need more jobs, this, that,’ … What does that look like?”

Before moving to the West Side two years ago, Reid lived in Hyde Park, where she says she was impressed by then 4th Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle’s visibility and organization – something Reid says is lacking in her new ward, the 29th, which Graham represents.

“(Preckwinkle) had a transition team, she had a plan, they studied the issues beforehand, and they hit the ground running,” Reid said.

Ald. Deborah Graham

Compared to her experience on the West Side, Reid said, “They’re universes apart.”

Reid said her organization has pressed Ald. Graham – whom then-Mayor Daley appointed in March 2010 and won election earlier this year – for a list of priorities and requested a meeting to help set objectives. She has not received a response, she said.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says aldermen should identify goals in the areas of zoning, economic development, affordable housing and new service initiatives. On the West Side, dealing with crime and developing block clubs should also be on that list, he said.

“Aldermen, to accomplish anything worthwhile, have to have plans,” Simpson said.

Creating “measurable objectives” – promising a certain number of new jobs or businesses, for instance – is more difficult, he said. But aldermanic “menu money” – about $1.3 million is allotted every year to each alderman for projects in his or her ward – provide a good opportunity for setting objectives, he said.

Ald. Michael Chandler

“They can be pretty specific,” Simpson said. “They can say, ‘I’m going to bring 10 blocks of new curbs or five streets completely repaved.'”

For Reid, the problem is partly that West Side residents rarely demand answers about what their aldermen plan to do or how they are using their money.

“(Residents) are not asking anything but to make sure their garbage cans are out there and to remove the snow,” Reid said. “We’re not asking them to perform at that level.”

Malcolm Crawford, president of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, says the fault lies not just with politicians but with their constituents. The black community lacks a unified agenda, he says, something that would give officials direction and “bargaining power” in their offices.

“(Aldermen) are supposed to be a servant of the people, but where are the people?” Crawford said. “We don’t give them a plan, and most of the time, they’re going around putting out fires, because everything is crucial. They’re kind of in panic mode most of the time.”

Grassroots organizing is the answer, Crawford said, and residents need to show up at City Hall.

“(Elected officials) come to the floor (when the City Council meets), and nobody shows up,” Crawford said. “We need to say, ‘I’m coming to City Council, who do I lobby?’”

“Then we give the aldermen some bargaining power,” he said. “The whole thing is a numbers game.”

6 thoughts on “Residents seek answers, accountability in aldermen’s first 100 days

  1. Great article. I agree with Malcolm Crawford, we need a “unified agenda”, which is why our organization recently released a list of Projects and Priorities for Austin to spur collaboration and action. We welcome input and action to raise the quality of life for all of our residents. Please visit our site to see the CANA Projects and Priorities for the Austin Community list ->

  2. “A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, a vision and a task is the hope of the world.” Kudos to Alderman Ervin for having the professionalism, courage, and respect for his constituents to outline his plan and vision for the 24th ward. I hope you serve as an example to the other elected officials in Austin that a title does not determine if you are a leader, but your actions do.
    It is absolutely disrespectful for an alderman to refuse to discuss plans for the ward they are elected and paid to serve. And it is even more unforgivable if they have NO plan or vision for their ward.
    With the many ills that are facing Austin, we need stronger, more “visionary” leaders than more stable communities.
    We need leaders that are:
    *responsive to their law abiding constituents
    *willing to work for progress in their wards
    *strong enough to fight for what is best for their wards
    *secure enough to collaborate with residents who are working to improve the community.
    “Where there is no vision, the people perish….. “-Proverbs 29:18. We are perishing in Austin.

  3. I called the 28th ward.emma answered,thats ed smiths old chief of staff.looks like ervin kept her on.ive been calling about my alley being cleaned for 3 months and nothing.I havent seen or heard from ervin since he won.where is are Garfield park fest? river north is getting a wal mart where is ours?? how about bike cops.go ahead and go any where in the 28th every one is walking around with a 40 and smoking a j.all those unfenced,over a foot weed infested vacant lots.thats revenue for the city,yet not being many camera systems did the green lline get?? what about the flash mobs over on the west side?? we have a alderman who dosent even live in the ward.we got screwed for another four years.what the 28th ward needs is diversity.more middle class folks moving in.our claim to fame is that the ward supply 67% of all herion bought in the i feel proud.keep up the good work ervin.remember this is the guy who forget he owned the building that ed smith was renting from.and since he is now the alderman is he paying himself rent??and if not where is that money bad there are no more real investigative reporters around any more.

  4. Pingback: CANA Speaks out in Austin Talks about Accountability and Lack of Planning by Elected Officials for the Austin Community | Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA)

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