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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”