Friday, June 13, 2014

Chicago-style democracy endures under Mayor Emanuel

Posted By on 06.13.14 at 05:05 PM

Mayor Emanuel announces plans for Obama College Prep. The mayors office has declined to answer questions about the selection of the Near North Side as the site for the school.
  • Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Emanuel announces plans for Obama College Prep. The mayor's office has declined to answer questions about the selection of the Near North Side as the site for the school.
"Rahm Emanuel is no friend of democracy," historian Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone in 2012. The mayor was "obsessed with finding ways to expand his executive power" and worked "underhandedly and opaquely," Perlstein charged.

Well, what does he expect of a Chicago mayor? I recall thinking when I read that.

I was an eight-month-old south-sider when Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955, and a 22-year-old north-sider, fresh out of college, when he died in office in 1976. He wasn't called Boss for nothing: he was obsessed with power, and he worked opaquely—that is, he felt little need to explain himself or to allow for a free flow of information about city business. Reporters were to be avoided and ignored, like any pests. His successor, Michael Bilandic, felt similarly.

There was more communication from City Hall briefly, in the mid-1980s, when Harold Washington was mayor. But Washington was felled by a heart attack in 1987, and two years later the Daley family reclaimed its fifth-floor throne. The new Boss, Richard M., had the same sentiment about democracy and the press as his father, and he kept those views during his 22 years in office.

But times have changed since Richard J. was mayor, and even since Richard M. was first elected. Mayors now must claim to value "transparency," no matter how they act.

And so Emanuel promised, during his campaign, "the most open, accountable and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen."

Given the tradition of Chicago government, that wasn't setting the bar high. And reporters covering the city since then have learned that the new boss is like the old bosses. Information is tightly controlled, delivered mainly in press releases and evasive e-mailed statements.

On April 24, Mayor Emanuel announced at a press conference that the city would build a selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side, in Stanton Park, and name it for President Obama. Soon criticisms were aired about the particular site—a park, in a neighborhood short on parks—and the choice of the largely affluent and white Near North Side, which already has a selective enrollment high school while many minority neighborhoods have none. The city has since responded to the complaints of Near North residents about the Stanton Park location by considering other sites within the neighborhood.

I wondered how the Near North Side was chosen. In his announcement, Emanuel said the area was accessible and that tax increment financing was available to build it in that neighborhood. He indicated that there were other options, although "literally less than a handful" of alternatives. He didn't say where they were or why the Near North Side was selected over them.

I e-mailed the director of new affairs for the Chicago Public Schools on May 16—four weeks ago today—asking him about the site selection process. The CPS spokesman referred me to the mayor's office. I called and e-mailed the mayor's office for three weeks. I asked specifically what sites outside of the Near North Side were considered, and why the Near North Side prevailed.

As I noted Monday, I finally got a response last week: a spokeswoman for the mayor referred me back to the CPS spokesman who had referred me to the mayor's office.

When I pressed the CPS spokesman again yesterday, he sent me a statement CPS had previously released. It said that CPS was now "engaging in a conversation with the community about potential locations within the neighborhood" for Obama Prep. The statement added that "This future school continues CPS’ commitment to ensuring that every child throughout the city has access to high quality education choices and resources they need to succeed.”

I replied that this didn't answer the questions I've asked about the choice of neighborhood. But I probably won't get any further response from the CPS spokesman, now that he's done his job: supplying me with a statement about CPS's commitment to high-quality education.

I don't have an ax to grind in inquiring about the site selection process. I've tried to write evenhandedly about the choice of the Near North Side as the future home of Obama Prep, noting on Monday that there are sound reasons for putting the school in that neighborhood, and sound reasons for putting it elsewhere. But I think the public deserves a fuller explanation of how the choice was made.

If the mayor's office or CPS candidly answered questions about the choice of neighborhood, however, it would prolong public attention on a subject the mayor would just as soon see fade away.

A government that's frank about its decision-making runs the risk of democracy breaking out, and democracy can be a messy thing. Chicago's mayors protect their citizens from such messes.

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