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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

After Being Shut Down By City, Humboldt Park Advisory Council Is Back With A New Board — And The Same Bitter Infighting

Some say last week's election shut certain neighbors out of the group, and they're worried it will lead to "even more divisiveness" down the road.

The Humboldt Park Advisory Council oversees the neighborhood's sprawling namesake park.
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HUMBOLDT PARK — More than a year after the Humboldt Park Advisory Council was shut down because of infighting and threats, neighbors are again at odds following a recent election to pick the board’s leaders.

The group is primarily responsible for organizing park events for kids and their families.

Last week’s “tense” vote — closely watched by the Chicago Park District — bookends a chaotic 17 months in which the results from a combative election were thrown out, the group was shut down, residents battled to have their positions certified and the Park District ordered the new vote. The election represented the group’s first meeting since January 2020.

But neighbors are still grappling with many of the same problems that nullified the previous election and forced the group’s long hiatus. Residents who felt alienated long had stopped attending meetings. That meant they couldn’t participate in the vote, according to the group’s bylaws, or weren’t even told about an election. Members accused each other of stacking the vote and threatening others.

Residents ultimately voted for Jackie Baez for president. Baez had won the previous election that was thrown out. Hector Villafuerte was chosen as vice president, Tracey Bartels as secretary, Julie Sawicki as treasurer and Glenn Brettner as sergeant at arms, said Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons. All but one are serving on the board for the first time and are promising a fresh start for the deeply divided group.

“I think now we’ve got a good board. It’s even,” Villafuerte said. “The agenda is about the kids — nothing else. People can fight and complain about everything. Let’s just focus on the kids, help them get off the streets.”

The council has not accomplished much for several years because of some residents “eating up all of the air in the room with their complaints, threats and conspiracies,” longtime group member Karl Kuhn said

“There’s been a very concentrated and direct attempt to seize control of the board or to have certain people voted in,” Kuhn said. “What this has meant is there has been an active campaign to suppress participation by making the meetings completely dysfunctional.”

“While that may seem a little far-fetched for a park council, it’s unfortunately true.”

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Jacqueline Baez and other residents at a press conference held in October 2020 at the Humboldt Park Field House.

The latest election was meant to settle a rift between two factions of the group, which have been embroiled in heated battles over gentrification for years.

Similar to past Humboldt Park Advisory Council meetings, last week’s election was “real tense,” Villafuerte said, with one person accused of writing down extra names and a physical altercation in which a woman “bumped into [Bartels] like she wanted to fight her.”

“That’s when I grabbed [Bartels] and said, ‘Come by me … .’ They were looking for a reason to start a fight,” Villafuerte said.

The Park District had someone from its Inspector General Office oversee the “entire process,” cross-referencing sign-in sheets with the membership log to ensure all voters and candidates were eligible to participate, Lemons said.

Residents only can vote in elections if they have attended at least five council meetings per year, according to the group’s 2012 bylaws. Many who have complained about the election didn’t fit that criteria, Villafuerte said.

“The bylaws are the bylaws,” he said.

Kuhn is among a group of current and former Humboldt Park Advisory Council members frustrated with the way last week’s election played out. They said they didn’t know the election was happening until a day or two before; many of them didn’t receive a direct invitation.

“There was never an official notice … so we can have it attended and at least verify the fairness. I heard about it through a secondhand email,” said former group member Charlie Billups.

The candidates only invited group members who were eligible to vote — residents who had attended at least five council meetings, Villafuerte said. But some current and former group members said the eligibility requirement is inherently unfair and part of an orchestrated strategy to take over the group and shut out certain residents.

“We know certain groups of people have time and money and child care to attend things outside of their homes,” said a resident who spoke with Block Club under the condition of anonymity.

Last week’s election comes after years of fighting and chaos, including a physical attack and a threat of a lawsuit. Many of the disputes have centered around one resident who has allegedly posted racist remarks on social media.

Some residents have left the group in recent years because it has gotten so toxic.

“All of these people, on both sides, are vindictive and truly hate each other. Their only goals have been to fight and win, with an occasional park accomplishment thrown in,” one resident said last year after the Park District shut down the group.

On the heels of winning a board seat, Villafuerte said he’s looking to move on and focus on launching programs for kids and their families.

“Let’s unite and let’s do something for the kids, our grandkids. Our kids are the ones who are going to suffer,” he said.

But some residents aren’t interested and say they plan limited involvement with the group moving forward. There are also talks of creating a shadow committee that would compete with the newly elected board.

“I’m a parent in this community. I wanted to go to something … to build community and make connections,” said another resident who spoke with Block Club under the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

“I thought this park was something that could bring us all together. I really joined so we could make free, fun events for kids. And I’m actually not even certain I want to go back. I’m nervous. I’m scared.”

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