IRVING PARK — In recent months, newly-elected Ald. Jim Gardiner has taken an unconventional approach to community engagement.
Instead of public meetings on how to spend ward money or whether to support or oppose certain projects, he’s held closed-door meetings in homes across the ward.
To Gardiner, the approach is a way to have more personal and honest conversations with residents. But others feel left in the dark.
Especially after Gardiner scrapped previously-approved plans for how to spend ward money.
Earlier this month, Gardiner joined Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) at the Old Irving Park Association’s monthly meeting. The two spent time letting neighbors know what they’d been up to since taking office.
Nugent explained that she was bringing participatory budgeting to the ward, which had never been done before. The process allows residents to vote on how ward money is spent, and has been used in 12 wards on over 160 community projects since 2009 with help from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.
“UIC has created this participatory budget program to help us as alderman roll it out and work with the community,” Nugent said. “So I’m dipping my toes in the water.”
It was then that a neighbor asked Gardiner: what happened to participatory budgeting in the 45th Ward — and all the plans for those funds approved by neighbors and Arena?
“The money, that $1.32 million, has to be spent by the end of the year,” Gardiner replied. “If you don’t spend it you lose that money. We didn’t have the time in our first year [in office] to coordinate participatory budgeting. So this year we did not have one but we’ll definitely do one next year because we’ll have more time to set it up properly and get people’s feedback.”
While Gardiner did not return multiple requests for comment or answer questions after the meeting, he did confirm to neighbors that he was scrapping several of the plans conceived under Arena and voted on by neighbors.
He defended his decision to pump the breaks on The Point project at Six Corners until the developers changed their plans and withhold funding for a dog park at Austin-Foster Park that had been set to receive ward money.
Instead, Gardiner said he’s focused on using the money to address much-needed street repairs after hearing neighbors complain on the campaign trail. So far, he’s gotten 20 streets resurfaced.
Thea Crum, director of the Neighborhoods Initiative at the Great Cities Institute at UIC, said Arena did organize a participatory budget vote for 2019 before the election and submitted results to the city, but once he lost, all bets were off.
“This is the first time this has actually happened,” Crum said. “When a new alderman comes in, the city asks them to approve what the previous alderman submitted. So it’s this gray area where Ald. Gardiner could decide to move forward with the budget process Ald. Arena did or he could decide to do his own. But this is kind of new area for us because it has never happened to us before.”
Crum’s organization is working with Nugent and helps other elected officials get to know the process.
“The next representative does not have to respect these votes”
A parallel example of a freshman alderman navigating this gray area is Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who decided to move forward with outgoing Ald. Joe Moore’s participatory budget plans after she was sworn in.
“The budget for 2019 was determined, in my case, in the 2018 participatory budgeting process. It would be up to my successor and all the other aldermen to chose in 2019 all the projects they wish to fund for 2020,” Moore said. “What’s previously approved is pretty much locked in. It’s always possible a new alderman may try to come in and try to do it differently, but really the city has already issued out money.”
An exception to this, Moore said, could be less traditional infrastructure improvements that haven’t had their contract paperwork signed off on yet.
“Maybe then a new alderman can come in and undo it. But for the traditional projects — streets, alleys and sidewalks — the die has already been cast,” Moore said.
Hadden volunteered when then-Ald. Moore launched participatory budgeting in 2009. It was one of the first places in the U.S. where that process was piloted, she said.
Over the last nine years, she’s volunteered to help people launch their own participatory budgeting programs.
“Most of the city’s wards that currently use participatory budgeting are ones that I helped to support with our partners UIC and the Great Cities Institute,” she said.
Due to that background, she was ready when it came time to address the ward money her predecessor Moore had assigned to projects in the ward for 2019.
“Menu money allocations and decisions around that need to be submitted to CDOT and the city’s office of budget management around January or February 2019,” she said. “So for the 49th Ward, since I’ve come into office, it’s not been a matter of approving those items but rather of reviewing them.”
Cost estimates, evaluations of individual projects, and timeline of the projects are all things the office of budget management have given Hadden updates on.
“Basically they say ‘These are the things the previous alderman submitted, these are in action and these are still waiting for information. Are you still okay with these?,'” she said. “And they do ask me if this is how I still want to allocate my 2019 menu money. For us it’s was pretty easy to approve the projects that Moore submitted because [this] is a process that I believe in and support.”
Neighbors voted on nearly a dozen projects to fund under former Ald. John Arena, and while some have been set aside, others were too far along to scrap.
One budget item approved from Arena’s tenure was the butterfly and edible garden at Gladstone Park. The park district was granted $15,000 in 2019 for the new garden just prior to Arena’s departure, according to Gladstone Park Advisory Council President Bob Simpson.
The project broke ground in April and just finished being built last month, Simpson said.
Arena’s final participatory budget as alderman also included an estimated:
• $140,000 and $240,000 for Milwaukee Avenue viaduct lighting between Lawrence Avenue and West Foster Avenue
• $525,000 for updated lighting near Independence Park
• $498,000 for updated lighting on Milwaukee Avenue from the Jefferson Park Metra stop to the intersection of Milwaukee and Foster avenues
According to the city’s website, the Milwaukee Avenue viaduct work is underway, but no permits have been filed for the updated lighting near Independence Park or the Jefferson Park Metra projects.
CDOT did not respond to questions regarding which Arena submitted participatory projects in the 45th Ward are moving forward under Gardiner.
Resident Peter Barash said he was frustrated by the lack of transparency surrounding the budget changes.
“It seems like you have a pattern of undoing or overruling projects that preceded you,” Barash told Gardiner at a meeting earlier this month. “And your office is not really forthright in helping us understand your decisions. What’s your vision that justifies undermining a lot of community work that went into these things before you came on?”
Gardiner, visibly frustrated, said he didn’t like his decisions being characterized as “undermining” Arena. However, he then went on to say that as the new alderman he doesn’t need to fund the projects Arena approved while in office.
“When it comes to politics people aren’t fully aware of what goes on behind the scenes. When you have a participatory budget your job is to tell voters, especially in an election year, that if I don’t win the next representative does not have to respect these votes,” Gardiner said.
He added that out of 54,000 people who live in the 45th ward, only 670 people voted on how to use the ward’s menu money.
He added that residents living near the proposed dog park gave him a petition with 360 signatures urging him to scrap the plan.
“I would take the opinions of the people who live closest to [a project] as probably the most important,” Gardiner said. “What I’ve been doing is probably unheard of. I put out on social media that I am even willing to go above and beyond what the far majority of alderman would do and go into your home and you can invite your neighbors to your home and speak to neighbors.”
Gardiner has attended more than 10 closed door, invite-only meetings with neighbors regarding The Point at Six Corners and other ward issues, he said.
“So what’s your vision then … that you are putting aside all the work that’s already been done and holding new meetings?,” Barash asked.
Gardiner invited the audience to meet him at his office so he could sit down and explain the complexities of making decisions in the ward so they could have a better grasp of what’s going on.
“It’s so easy to look in the window and say to somebody when they’re an elected official that ‘you should do this or you should do that,'” Gardiner said. “But unfortunately a lot of people have no idea of what goes into developments such as the one at Six Corners, such as the dog park, such as participatory budgeting.”
Barash, however, wasn’t convinced.
“I’d happily visit your office but what you have to understand is that this is a very educated ward,” Barash said, to applause from the audience at the meeting.
“It’s obvious what you don’t know though,” Gardiner said.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.