Brian Comer (left) debated incumbent Ald. Timmy Knudsen (right) during an Old Town forum moderated by former Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (middle). Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

OLD TOWN — Ald. Timmy Knudsen (43rd) and challenger Brian Comer laid out their public safety plans, sparred over a recent campaign video accused of “spreading fear” and misinformation and talked deep-dish pizza during a debate Thursday.

Knudsen and Comer appeared before a few dozen neighbors at the Old Town Triangle Association, 1763 N. North Park Ave., for their final scheduled debate before the April 4 runoff election.

The hour-long discussion was moderated by former Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a former state representative who has worked with previous 43rd Ward alderpeople.

The ward comprises Lincoln Park and part of Old Town.

The two candidates agreed crime is the top issue affecting the ward, but they differed in their approaches to improving public safety.

Knudsen, who was appointed alderman in September when former Ald. Michele Smith retired, pointed to his vote for the city’s 2023 budget, which increased funding for violence prevention programs and filling police vacancies.

Knudsen also said there should be more oversight of the budget process and suggested the Police Department’s hiring budget not be raised until its vacancies are filled.

“At this moment in time, just in the way we’ve increased the budget, I don’t think we increase the budget again until we’ve met these vacancies,” Knudsen said. “I think that is a slippery slope.”

Comer, who was just elected to his fourth term as president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, said he would make sure the Police Department is “fully funded” so it can hire more officers.

Comer wants to establish a pilot program with DePaul University in which college graduates would be recruited to the police force and receive a bonus equal to a year’s worth of tuition after serving four years, he said.

“The program is structured to make a wonderful college graduate become an excellent police officer,” Comer said. “It starts at DePaul, but then it goes to all the other schools once we’ve worked out the kinks here.”

Comer also called for more oversight and transparency of the police budget.

Incumbent Ald. Timmy Knudsen speaks during a 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates debate. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Other issues included community involvement in local developments, improving schools and strengthening the ward’s business corridors.

One major development is Fern Hill’s plan to overhaul a group of properties in Old Town. That include converting the vacant Treasure Island building and a parking lot at North Avenue and LaSalle Drive into a high-rise tower.

The project falls in Ald. Brian Hopkins’ 2nd Ward, but it borders the 43rd Ward and will affect those neighbors, Fritchey said.

Comer said he would listen to neighbors to determine if he supports it and proposed establishing a community benefits agreement.

“That’s going to sit next to the Old Town Triangle, which has a rich history and architecture,” Comer said. “I want to see them actually put money into a fund to protect preservation. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a developer who’s developing something new that the neighbors agree on, but then would also be benefitting the preservation of the neighborhood?”

Knudsen said his office has engaged 43rd Ward neighbors to gather feedback. Benefits include bringing back a neighborhood grocery store in the vacant Treasure Island space, but he said “there’s a lot more to go with this process” before supporting it.

“Like any development that borders us and isn’t necessarily with us, I’ll be advocating for the neighborhood association to decide what they want, and we will do that with Ald. Hopkins the same way we’re doing that on other projects,” Knudsen said.

Brian Comer, Sheffield Neighborhood Association president and candidate for 43rd Ward alderman, speaks during a debate Wednesday, March 23, 2023. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

For businesses, Comer suggested filling commercial vacancies by removing the red tape that can delay openings by months. Comer also proposed putting new businesses on a reduced fee schedule for their first five years to support them as they get going.

“The city needs to do a lot better job to make sure these small businesses, which are the cornerstone of each of these business districts, not just survive but thrive,” Comer said.

Knudsen said the ward’s vacant storefronts are a “safety issue” and proposed creating incentives for businesses to open in the neighborhood, such as $5,000 grants for owners to re-do their storefronts.

“There’s been a few promising things in the last couple months,” Knudsen said. “It’s no secret we’re filling John Barleycorn, which is fabulous. We’re close to filling Sedgwick’s, and I strongly believe that good business births good business, so when one comes, they’ll keep coming.”

A few dozen people came out to an Old Town debate between the 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

The two also revisited a controversy in the election: a video Comer posted after a struggle between a police officer and a man March 10 in Lincoln Park. Comer showed up to the scene and filmed the video, incorrectly saying the officer had been shot.

Knudsen, who said he also went to the scene, waited until the day after to share an update about the incident in his newsletter. He criticized Comer for “spreading fear within our ward.”

“There’s a complete contrast in judgement here,” Knudsen said. “I was at a school event that night with parents in this room, and people were very afraid. … So just take the video down.”

Comer insisted he made the video based on what people at the scene thought, which was that the officer had been shot, he said. He also filmed a follow-up video about a week after the incident clarifying that the officer had not been shot.

Comer did not directly answer whether he regretted claiming the officer was shot.

“In the moment, I believe that everyone would love to say things perfectly, but the difference between shot and injured is the only thing we’re in disagreement on,” Comer said. “I’m leaving [the first video] up there because that’s what we did that night. And then we filmed another video showing the aftermath and what we knew days later.”

Former Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey moderated a debate between 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates Brian Comer and Timmy Knudsen. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

The debate also had moments of brevity, including a point at which the two candidates bonded over getting to know each other’s families and a quick discussion about pizza and music.

Comer and Knudsen confessed they prefer deep-dish to thin-crust pizza, and Knudsen gave a shoutout to the nearby Ranalli’s.

Their favorite musicians: Comer loves U2 and Knudsen is one of Lady Gaga’s little monsters.

The runoff election is April 4. Early voting has already begun.