Monday, December 31, 2007

Maybe next year

Posted By on 12.31.07 at 06:37 PM

2008 could be the year of Tony Rezko's redemption in court, or progressive tax relief for area voters. But we don't think so. Here's a few more likely scenarios:

Olympics In June, the International Olympic Committee will select Chicago as one of its four finalists for the 2016 games (the final finalist will be chosen in 2009). Mayor Daley will prepare to spend two more years explaining how the games will be financed without public tax dollars and why we need Frank Kruesi to carry the Olympic torch into Soldier Field.

TIFs TIFs, which collected $500 million in property taxes in 2006, will take in at least $600 million in 2007 and $800 million more in ’08. Mayor Daley and the aldermen who help decide how to spend the money will continue to insist it isn't a tax hike while creating new TIF districts for "blighted" sections of the Mag Mile.


Police misconduct After working through the final legal snags, loopholes, and kinks, the city will finally agree to settle the lawsuits accusing police of torture under former commander Jon Burge. Aldermen will be relieved to put this issue behind them so they only have to approve payouts for routine police beatings and shootings.

 

CTA bailout State leaders will find money to let the CTA avoid cutting all but a few bus routes on the city’s south and west sides while continuing to employ former aldermen, ousted mayoral aides, and other middle managers sent over from City Hall.

 

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger will remain the favorite scapegoat for anyone interested in playing reformer while providing jobs for his friends, cousins, in-laws, nieces, and nephews.

Council progressives Reform-minded aldermen will realize they need some help organizing an independent caucus in the City Council and decide Mayor Daley is exactly the guy who can get it done.

New taxes The city will consider taxing residents 5 cents per toilet flush to raise money for the legal defense of alleged Shakman Decree violators. 

New lease arrangements Having worked out a deal to lease Midway Airport for an infusion of cash into the city’s coffers, Mayor Daley will propose to lease Lake Michigan to DuPage County.

 

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Hauls to the chiefs

Posted By on 12.31.07 at 04:14 PM

As the year ends, a time to reflect . . .

Former CEO Dennis FitzSimons, who gave the Tribune Company 25 years, just walked out the door Sam Zell held open with a package worth $38.3 million in severance and stock. The sums bandied about in civil litigation were vastly larger, but in the end Conrad Black was convicted of stealing $6.1 million from Hollinger International and he just got six and a half years in prison. Maybe he should have fired himself instead.

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What I'll remember (maybe) ...

Posted By on 12.31.07 at 12:01 PM

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Still scrambling to catch up with the year-end releases—out of the reviewers' loop, I pay my own way, just like y'all—so my annual list of "favorite" movies (not "best," since what do I know about that?) will have to wait till later in the week. But favorite individual scenes/motifs from 2007? Now that's almost doable ...

Up a tree. In Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, Nicole Kidman's character gets stuck in an old red oak overlooking her family's Long Island seaside property. The symbolism's patent, the character's anxiety palpable—yet considerably more emerges from the physical world itself, in the comfortable pulpy textures of the trunk, the spread of the branches, the beckoning oceanic view: equal parts terror and transport, intimacy and infinity, with a radiant blue envelope of sky and water that seems to go on forever. Something like bliss on a crisp fall day, out on the scary subliminal edge of feeling—except you have to go beyond the literal script to find it. Also another peak moment in the foliage: the mist-shrouded finale of Sharon Lockhart's structuralist, meditative Pine Flat. Is there an actual tree in that billowing murk or only the ghost of same? With so much ambiguous hide-and-seek to puzzle over, it's almost impossible to know.

Passages to India. Benoit Jacquot's The Untouchable has been slagged for its allegedly too touristy, pittoresque scenes of subcontinental misery, and while there's obviously a point to rooting out cultural tin ears, in this case it seems almost completely misplaced. Why shouldn't The Untouchable be touristy? It's offering you a tourist's point of view, in the person of Isild Le Besco's Jeanne, as overawed as she is lost in the "exotic" Bengali undertow, the effects of raw immersion in a putatively "alien" world. I can't think of another film that captures the giddy push-pull of this so seductively, the conflicted urge to plunge ahead without a map, everything simultaneously disorienting and new. That Jacquot shoots it all with incidental "natives" staring into the camera simply adds to the strange confusion, the insinuating sense that our heroine's being constantly observed. For a while she seems even to attract her own stalker: same anonymous orange shirt bobbing in and out of frame; that this small ripple of tension ultimately dissipates doesn't negate the selective paranoia it induces. Runner-up along the Ganges: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Scream of the Ants—more accusations of tourism, but to me it's an entropic descent, like a full cultural meltdown. Best not go there, just stay wherever you are ...

Trouble in the casbah. Don't you just love the way Julia Stiles's hair swings in one direction as the rest of her goes another during the big "woman in distress" chase sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum? Almost anonymous as she ping-pongs down assorted Tunisian alleyways and corridors, except every so often she'll turn to face the camera full—just so you know it's her, I guess. Almost pure formal abstraction in a film that would rather do away with actors and characters altogether—as well as, arguably, the most interesting thing about it.

Obviously there's more but unfortunately I haven't the time ... so why not fill in the blanks with some examples of your own? 

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Winners and losers

Posted By on 12.28.07 at 07:27 PM

It was a typical year in Chicago. There were the giants who did the stepping and the ants who got stepped on. Here's a look at some of the winners and losers in 2007. --Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke

Winner: Photoshop. With the help of the photo editing program, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. extended his political reach without having to miss any karate sessions at his favorite dojo. One and the same picture of him was used on billboard and campaign literature for each candidate he endorsed -- his wife Sandi included. When asked why Jackson didn't just pose with his wife, whom he presumably sees now and then, a congressional aide said: "That's the winning formula, the winning strategy."

Loser: Cook County commissioner William Beavers. The self-proclaimed "hog with the big nuts" thought his daughter Darcel's election as Seventh Ward alderman was in the bag. Then he realized that Jackson had secured every billboard around, saturating the south side. Sandi Jackson went on to trounce Darcel Beavers.

Winners: Ducks and geese. Critics of alderman Joe Moore’s foie gras ban vowed to overturn it, but the legislation never advanced. As a result, animal rights advocates say, fewer fowl have iron rods thrust down their throats in force-feeding.

Losers: Lovers of foie gras and haters of Moore’s ordinance, including Mayor Daley, aldermen Berny Stone and Tom Tunney, and Moore’s 49th Ward opponent Don Gordon, who mostly succeeded in inspiring animal rights activists to rally support for the ban across the city.

Winners: Service-sector unions, which became major players in the City Council by helping bankroll the victories of self-proclaimed reformers and independents such as Bob Fioretti, Pat Dowell, Sandi Jackson, Toni Foulkes, Joann Thompson, Brendan Reilly, and Joe Moore.

Losers: Service-sector unions, who watched while many of those "independents" sank into the comfy cushions of their City Council seats and voted for TIFs, higher taxes, eminent domain deals, and other Daley administration initiatives.

Winners: Mayor Daley, who was able to enjoy a bike ride around Paris; Governor Blagojevich, who chilled at a Blackhawks game; Michael Madigan, who continued to bring home big bucks as a property tax appeal lawyer; and Emil Jones, who kept dreaming of new casinos in Illinois ... while CTA bailout plans crashed in the general assembly.

 

Losers: CTA riders, at least some of whom are wondering if they should choose the more efficient option of skateboarding to work.

 

Winner: Former 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus. By losing his reelection battle to Brendan Reilly, Natarus no longer has to put up with ceaseless whining from Gold Coast constituents.

Loser: Brendan Reilly. Since he’s had the job, Mayor Daley’s all but called him a bigot for opposing the move of the Chicago Children’s Museum to Grant Park and a kid hater for asking questions about plans by Children’s Memorial Hospital to move to the Gold Coast. Plus he has to answer all those calls that used to go to Natarus.

Winners: The boys and girls soccer teams from the Latin School, one of the city's wealthiest and most exclusive private schools. The Park District gave them (as in for free) prime lakefront park property to build a soccer field.

Losers: Pretty much all of the public high school soccer teams, who have to play on lumpy, potholed, precariously uneven fields.

Winners: Elite athletes from around the world. Mayor Daley is planning to spend untold billions building them state-of-the-art track, swimming, field hockey, and equestrian facilities for the 2016 Olympics.

Losers: Chicagoans, who don't have, among other things, consistent access to swimming pools, well-lit gyms, unslippery basketball courts, or a single indoor running track.

Winner: Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who in exchange for obsequiously endorsing Daley for reelection won a pledge from the mayor not to use any public money for the 2016 Olympics.

Loser: Congressman Gutierrez. Once safely reelected, Daley broke his promise and got the council to commit $500 million for the Olympics.

Winner: Mayor Daley. Thanks to TIFs, Daley's getting well over $500 million a year in off-the-books property taxes that he's pretty much free to dish out to favored developers, businesses, cronies, and friends.

Losers: Voters, who reelected Daley with more than 70 percent of the ballots, seemingly on the grounds that Chicago's not as bad as Gary or Detroit. In the words of a one-time civil rights activist who's now a key Daley ally, "But don't those flowers look nice?"

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Human resources

Posted By on 12.27.07 at 07:06 PM

The city's Democratic machine is and always has been built on jobs: whoever's in the position to hand them out or take them away gets to do what he wants, from setting tax rates to, say, bypassing the process set in law for picking a police chief. So we thought it made sense to check Chicago’s political pulse by reviewing a few of the Daley administration’s personnel moves. And again, we welcome your comments. --Ben Joravsky & Mick Dumke

 

  1. The police department disbands its Special Operations Section. SOS officers had the freedom to move to high-crime spots citywide and were credited by the department with reducing violence. Critics, on the other hand, long complained that many SOS officers were overzealous and quick to use excessive force. This summer aldermen learned that officers from the elite unit led the department in collecting misconduct complaints; others were charged with home invasion and kidnapping, and one with plotting to murder another officer. In October interim superintendent Dana Starks announced that he was breaking up SOS. The 100 or so officers who made up the troubled unit? They've been moved to other police divisions and special teams.
  2. Christopher Kozicki admits to fixing testing results for city job applicants, then gets promoted. After Kozicki confessed that he helped the well connected get inspector jobs in the Department of Buildings, Inspector General David Hoffman recommended that the planning department fire him. But Mayor Daley overruled Hoffman, with city officials explaining that ousting Kozicki would send the wrong message to whistleblowers. Kozicki, who used to be a driver for Mayor Daley’s younger brother, county commissioner John Daley, ended up with a higher-paying job. Planning department officials wouldn’t return calls for comment on what qualifies Kozicki for a $130,000-a-year position.
  3. Frank Kruesi’s skills are tapped again. In February Daley dismissed Kruesi from his job as CTA president in part because his arrogance alienated state legislators. In December Daley picked him to serve as the city’s chief federal lobbyist. Part of his job will entail making nice with congressmen.
  4. The city fires former water department employee John Resa a mere two and a half months after he pleaded guilty to federal perjury charges. Resa, a onetime organizer for the Hispanic Democratic Organization, has a history of nice gigs with the city. From 2003 until October 2006 he stayed away from his job and collected disability pay; he was finally called back to work after the Sun-Times wrote about him. In December 2006 he was indicted for perjury by a federal grand jury, and the city moved to fire him a couple weeks later. But Resa appealed his termination, receiving pay and benefits for months while his case was in limbo. He finally pleaded guilty to lying in August and was canned for good in November, days before he was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
  5. The city upholds its firing of former water department employee/whistle-blower/gadfly/political activist Frank Coconate [scroll down to "The Coconut Brings in a Closer"]. After generating hundreds of pages of paper in hearing transcripts, spending thousands of dollars, and mobilizing two lawyers and several high-ranking water department officials, the city persuaded a hearing officer that Coconate should indeed be terminated from his safety-inspector job for not properly stapling work-site photographs to reports. The three-person Human Resources Board, which is appointed by Mayor Daley, upheld Coconate’s firing. But Coconate has appealed in circuit court, arguing that his real sin was criticizing the mayor and several department programs. He adds that someone else did the stapling for his reports.
  6. The Department of Planning and Development cracks down on rogue student interns. In March a student intern was forced to resign from the planning department when a high-ranking department official “began more strictly enforcing the rule that student interns actually be students,” according to the city’s court-appointed hiring monitor. The intern, it turned out, hadn’t been in school for a year. But he ended up lucking out: just when he lost his city job, the department decided to “outsource” his work to a private company. This contractor then decided to hire the intern to do the same work he’d been doing at the same desk he’d been using while he was a city employee.

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The Whole Hog Project: So Long Cong and Cherry, part two

Posted By on 12.27.07 at 06:36 PM

Part two: the Killing Floor 

Mark Kessenich is a regular customer at the small slaughterhouse where we brought his mulefoot hogs Cong and Cherry earlier this month. They're the first swine he's raised to slaughter, but he's brought plenty of sheep and a few Highland cattle there before. He's on friendly terms with with the USDA inspector that normally works on the killing floor, looking for signs of disease in the organs and carcasses of the animals that pass through, and purple-stamping her approval if they're healthy. Mark makes it a practice to watch the inspection and butchery of his animals, because it gives him a measure of how well his husbandry techniques are working. And as his wife Linda Derrickson puts it, it's part of their "spiritual journey" with the animals. "We have given them a good life which includes our love and respect," she says. "They are not just hunks of meat being processed. They are individually valued, and we thank and bless them for sustaining us and our farm with their meat."

Mark and I entered the killing floor, where four workers were methodically working on three enormous cows hanging from pulleys in various states of completion. They labored under the watch of two new inspectors, one training the other.

Just before we'd arrived they'd dispatched Cong and Cherry with a pneumatic bolt, after which the hogs were hung up to bleed out. Cong was laid out on his back, and a pair of workers opened his hide from his breast to his belly, slowly separating it from his fat, which was relatively scant, as is typical of boars. He was hauled into the air by a pulley, and another chain was attached to the back of his thick, black-haired hide to pull it away from the carcass. The hide, along with his hooves, was then discarded.

I hadn't realized this slaughterhouse wasn't equipped with a scalder, which removes the hair from the skin, and would have allowed Mark to leave it on and keep the hooves. According to the inspector, these are rare in small Wisconsin slaughterhouses. In fact, this one wasn't equipped to process many internal organs, such as the intestines and tripe. We're going to have to find a different slaughterhouse for our pig, Dee Dee.

The workers then opened Cong with a power saw and removed the liver and heart, proffering them to the inspectors to check for parasites. In a few areas there were milky white spots on Cong's otherwise dark brown liver. This is indicative of roundworms. For farmers like Kessenich who allow their animals to range freely on grass and don't use chemical dewormers, roundworms, or Ascaris suum, are a fact of life.

If roundworm eggs are ingested by an animal, they hatch in the intestines and migrate to the liver, where the damage they cause is evidenced by those spots. From there they can enter the bloodstream, and then the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. That's when a heavily infected pig starts to show respiratory problems, loss of appetite, and vomiting; the parasite can be fatal. None of the mulefoots had any of these symptoms. 

If the spots show up in one or two areas in the liver, they can be cut out, and the liver will pass inspection. But three or more and the inspectors will condemn the organ. That's what happened this time, though Kessenich felt it should have passed. Cong's heart passed with flying colors.

Then it was Cherry's turn. Her carcass was covered with a thick layer of back fat, and compared to Cong, she had almost twice as much leaf lard, the precious deposit of fat located around the kidneys. Like Cong, Cherry's liver showed signs of infection and was discarded, but her heart passed as well.

Her seven fetuses were also thrown away. "We did not know for certain that Cherry was pregnant," Linda explained later. "It apparently occurred when the boars broke through fencing to be with the sows in late fall. Most farms use artificial insemination or keep their boars in  jail-like paddocks. We chose, instead, to give our boars a large 20-acre free-range pasture . . . which proved not to be boar-proof."

The inspector-in-training stamped his approval on the carcasses, though they, along with the other animals killed that day, weren't scheduled to be cut up until after the weekend. But Mark took home the hearts, the leaf lard, and a piece of hanging tender from Cong. He wanted to to check the meat for boar taint, an unpleasant barnyard aroma that sometimes results when an uncastrated male is kept in the proximity of females.

Cong's finished carcass weighed 145.5 pounds, and most of it was destined to be sausage. Cherry's was 175.5 and would be cut up into its primal parts. Mark planned to return to pick everything up in a few days.

Next: the Meat 

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Say what?

Posted By on 12.26.07 at 06:20 PM

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Over the next few days we'll be looking back on the political highlights and lowlights of 2007. Feel free to weigh in (we know you will). --Ben Joravsky & Mick Dumke

"Most aldermen, most politicians, are hos." Former 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman, who was defeated in February after being indicted on federal charges of taking $10,000 in payoffs from an FBI mole posing as a developer.

"Fifty aldermen sitting in the City Council are hos. I want to change that culture. I don't want to be one of them. I don't want to be sitting in the City Council and have someone call me ho." Unsuccessful 50th Ward aldermanic challenger Salman Aftab, speaking at a candidate's forum during last winter's campaign.

"Alderman Schulter has always been concerned about the small businesses in his ward." Alderman Gene Schulter (47th), answering a reporter's question about his proposal to use eminent domain to force about 20 merchants on Western Avenue to sell their property to the city.

"Dorothy is busy taking care of the business of the Third Ward!" Political aide Jacky Grimshaw, explaining why her boss, former Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman, failed to attend a campaign forum. Tillman lost the election to challenger Pat Dowell.

"In boxing, the challenger meets the champion in the ring and they fight it out. If there's another challenger, he meets the champion in the ring. If there's a third, he meets the champion in the ring. Do the three challengers meet the champion in the ring all at once and join up and beat the shit out of him?" Alderman Berny Stone (50th), explaining why he skipped an aldermanic debate. Stone won in a hotly contested runoff.

"I'm the hog with the big nuts." Cook County commissioner Bill Beavers explaining his role on the county board.

"Their job is to protect us, not to hurt us." Alderman Walter Burnett (27th) explaining the responsibilities of the Chicago Police Department.

"You mean you don't want children from the city in Grant Park? Why? Are they black? Are they white? Are they Hispanic? Are they poor? You don't want children?" Mayor Richard Daley, playing the race card in his effort to overcome local opposition to moving the Children's Museum to Grant Park.

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Heads Up: New Year's Eve edition

Posted By on 12.26.07 at 04:37 PM

There are lots of restaurants in town with big plans for New Year’s Eve (see our regularly updated guide), but it’s swan-song time at these two, which will be missed:

After ten years in business, Meritage Cafe and Wine Bar is closing January 1, but not with a whimper. On his last night chef Troy Graves will offer a seasonal five-course prix fixe dinner for $85 from 5:30 to 10:30 PM. At press time the menu wasn’t 100 percent set, but there will be curried suckling pig with charred pineapple coulis and seared foie gras (let the authorities close him down for serving the banned delicacy, Graves says); lobster ceviche with blood orange emulsion; oysters on the half shell with passion fruit sorbet; goat cheese soup with balsamic-grilled red onions; and wine-braised pheasant with chorizo grits and braised greens. A cocktail party (with cash bar) follows the dinner and goes till 2 AM; no reservations required for the party. Owner Christopher Peckat is quick to move on: his new barbecue place, Risque Cafe (3419 N. Clark, 773-525-7711), is slated to open in late December.

Chef John Bubala, who’s also closing his ten-year-old restaurant the first of the year, goes out in style with two seatings at Timo. The first, a three-course prix fixe meal for $50, will be served from 5:30 to 8 PM; the second, four courses for $80, is at 9:30. Among the 20 items diners can choose from are risotto with sausage, smoked Gouda, and asparagus; “chef’s whim” house-made ravioli; pork shank with gnocchi, bacon, and roasted onions; salmon with Italian barley and black olives; steak in red wine sauce with rosemary; and six desserts, including a creme brulee trio and a chocolate gateau. Both seatings include a glass of champagne, and the Dan Cray Trio plays jazz at the second seating. “Like Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew,” says Bubala. “No Sinatra.”

 Also closing the first of the year: John Manion's Mas and the Grotto on State .

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No escaping this Ghost of Christmas Future

Posted By on 12.26.07 at 12:28 PM

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Don't blame Bulls coaches if they begin to approach Christmas Eve with all the fearful trepidation of Ebenezer Scrooge. The Bulls sacked coach Scott Skiles on Monday, six years to the day after Tim Floyd was fired. Skiles was matter-of-fact about it and went surprisingly tamely for someone with such renowned intensity. But then again a lack of intensity was what marked the Bulls' play this season as they got off to another slow start and, unlike the previous three years, failed to turn it around in December. Many blamed distractions, from general manager John Paxson being unable to sign Luol Deng and Ben Gordon to contract extensions before the season to the rigamarole surrounding an unconsummated blockbuster deal for Kobe Bryant. Paxson himself said he thought the team had too many personal agendas running at cross-purposes. On the court, the team's shooting suffered as opposing defenses decided to play them more honestly and not bite on the regular scheme to drive, draw the double-team, and kick it outside that had worked so well the last two years. Assistant coach Jim Boylan is expected to be promoted after Pete Myers runs the club tonight in San Antonio, but he too faces the prospects of a hooded ghost pointing at the headstone of a dead season. Here's hoping he wakes up in bed some time in the next week with the entire team pledging to atone for the past with a renewed sense of purpose. 

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Monday, December 24, 2007

I'll be back . . .

Posted By on 12.24.07 at 04:43 PM

I'm taking a few days off. See you around New Year's.

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