PORTAGE PARK — The Six Corners Chamber of Commerce has been ousted from its role overseeing tax dollars spending for Portage Park’s main shopping district less than two years after it was appointed to the position.
In a rare move, the city’s Department of Planning and Development, which supervises the city’s tax provider agreements with neighborhood groups, pulled the organization’s funding last month over mismanagement, city officials said.
The chamber had been charged with managing money from Special Service Area 28, which imposes a special tax on property owners roughly from the Metra tracks to North Lavergne Avenue and between Byron Street and Warner Avenue. That funding helped the group provide support to businesses, host events, add holiday decorations and manage snow removal and trash pickup in the corridor, among other duties.
The city terminated the chamber’s contract Oct. 4 because someone who was not a board member was managing some of the group’s operations without authorization, spokesperson Peter Strazzabosco told Block Club in an email.
City officials did not identify that person.
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City leaders became aware the person fired a chamber member without the authorization to do so and was involved in other personnel decisions, according to a letter planning Commissioner Maurice D. Cox sent group leaders in August.
Planning department leaders terminated the contract after deciding the explanation from chamber officials was inadequate, a city spokesperson said.
“The city wants all its contractors to perform their contractual functions with integrity and appropriate business controls so that non-employees cannot disrupt or attempt to take over employment matters and other business decisions,” Cox wrote.
The Six Corners Chamber of Commerce was ordered to return any unused city funding, reports, documents, studies and other findings to the city by Oct. 14.
The chamber’s budget for 2022 was $343,000, and the organization received $127,000 before the contract was terminated, city officials said. It was not immediately clear how much money the group must return or if the money was returned by the city’s deadline.
The city will audit the chamber and require the group to complete the audit within 120 days of the notice, Cox wrote.
The planning department has only terminated two service provider contracts prematurely in the past 10 years, Strazzabosco said.
The canceled contract does not disband the chamber as an organization, but it does pull city funding and resources, department officials said. The contract originally was set to expire Dec. 31 with an option for renewal.
Linda Stagner, the new interim executive director with the chamber, declined to comment when reached by phone Monday.
Stagner later sent Block Club a letter, dated Monday, that the chamber sent to the city in response to its decision. Chamber leaders wrote the organization returned the remaining tax money Oct. 14 but accused the city of pulling funding for political reasons.
“In absence of giving us a reason to terminate this agreement, we can only surmise that this is being done for political reasons,” wrote Dennis Wolkowicz, the chamber’s chairman of the board. “The current city administration has been publicly harsh on the alderman of the 45th Ward where the SSA is located.”
Ald. Jim Gardiner’s (45th) office did not return requests for comment.
Each of the city’s special service area providers levies a tax on property owners within specific boundaries for services that benefit all businesses, including holiday decorations, trash pickup, security and snow removal.
At least seven commissioners for the districts are appointed by the mayor and oversee the services and annual budget for the taxing districts.
Northwest Side aldermen have fought over leadership of the special service area for years.
In 2019, Gardiner pushed to change the service area’s bylaws to ensure its commissioners were business owners or property owners within the boundaries of the taxing district.
That spurred backlash from a longtime former member, who accused Gardiner of trying to retaliate against her for supporting former Ald. John Arena. Gardiner’s office denied he was trying to tie up funding for the group until the bylaws were changed, and he backed off his effort to overhaul the rules.
After that, several commissioners resigned and the terms of others expired, according to Nadig Newspapers. Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed their replacements.
In late 2020, the City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development controversially appointed the Six Corners Chamber of Commerce to oversee the taxing district, replacing the Six Corners Association after 16 years.
Gardiner pushed for the chamber to take over while city officials wanted the Six Corners Association to remain in the role, according to Nadig Newspapers. The special service area commission twice voted in favor of the chamber of commerce, Nadig Newspapers reported.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who chaired that committee, at the time said officials received 70 emails and a petition signed by 300 neighbors urging them not to let the chamber take over, saying it only represented a small portion of the community and lacked transparency.
The provider for the Six Corners Special Service Area is now blank on the city’s website.
The city will issue a request for proposals to replace the chamber as the tax district’s service provider for 2023, Strazzabosco said. The city is working with the commissioners and Gardiner to pick a temporary organization to carry on duties through the winter, pending City Council approval, Strazzabosco said.
The chamber plans to reapply to become the taxing district provider during the proposals process, Wolkowicz wrote.
The chamber has seen turnover in the past year, with at least five members and volunteers leaving the post in 2022. There are four active members with the chamber who were appointed by Lightfoot, while four commissioner spots remain vacant, according to the city’s board and membership information.
The group has also had to cancel three meetings within the past four months because not enough commissioners attended, according to the chamber’s meeting notes on its website and former members.
Amie Zander, president of the Six Corners Association, said the contract ending is sad for the neighborhood. Given the opportunity, the association board would once again take the chance to be the area’s tax-funded provider, she said.
“There is no downside [to being the provider again], and this is important for the neighborhood,” Zander said. “It’s our mission to support the community and create a sense of unity.”
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