Large crowds, protesters greet Mayor Lightfoot at budget town hall meetings
October 4, 2019

Mayor Lightfoot has been seeking input from people around the city concerning her first City budget as mayor.

By Nathan Worcester

Nine o’clock on a Saturday morning might seem early for a public meeting. Indeed, as the minutes ticked down to the scheduled budget town hall with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Sept. 14, the high school’s cavernous auditorium was half empty. Yet by the time Mayor Lightfoot started responding to questions, comments, and, at one point, a coordinated disruption, the room was teeming with a mixture of City departmental staff, aldermen, union activists, and everyday Chicagoans.

The meeting was the second of four budget town halls taking place across the city. They come on the heels of the mayor’s primetime August 29 press conference, during which she addressed the city’s $838 million projected shortfall in 2020.

“While I recognize this is a steep hill to climb, I am committing to residents that, together, we will do the hard work of finding sustainable solutions that will lead our city to long-term financial stability,” Mayor Lightfoot stated.

Outside Roberto Clemente, protestors greeted arriving attendees who included Steven Ashby, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a possible strike by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers gathered strength, Ashby and others came to voice concerns over school funding.

“I’m here to support teachers throughout Chicago Public Schools,” said Ashby. “They want school buildings that aren’t falling apart. They want smaller class sizes. They want social workers and nurses and case managers and librarians in every school.”

Mayor Lightfoot remained tight-lipped about some subjects, most notably the Lincoln Yards development on the North Side, but she answered other questions in detail. She advised some questioners to speak directly with staff members in the audience for answers and action.

Mayor Lightfoot’s comments followed her introduction by newly elected 1st Ward Alderman Daniel LaSpata, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who defeated incumbent Alderman Proco Joe Moreno in February of this year.

“You being here is essential,” Alderman LaSpata told the crowd. “It is essential that we recognize that a budget is not just a ledger of dollars coming in and dollars coming out, but it is a reflection of our collective values.”

“It feels early on a Saturday morning,” Mayor Lightfoot observed as she launched into her opening remarks.

‘Shine a light’ on budget

Lightfoot emphasized the need to “shine a light on our budget building process,” saying the City needed to “break the cycle” of investing less in some areas than others. “I believe residents should expect to have a mayor who listens,” she added.

Nicholas Limbeck, a bilingual teacher at CPS’s John Barry School, was the first to question Lightfoot. Each speaker was allocated 90 seconds.

“Right now, we are dealing with schools like mine that don’t have a full-time nurse every day,” said Limbeck. “We implore you, mayor, to consider and make some policies that tax the rich. They can afford it.

“We need to reverse the TIF on Lincoln Yards,” he added to raucous applause.

“So, I agree with you regarding the schools 100%, which is exactly why we put together a very fulsome compensation package for teachers.” said Lightfoot. “We’ve also made very specific recommendations that we’ve embedded in our budget to support increases in nurses and in counselors and in case managers and in librarians. And what we’ve asked the CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] is partner with us to help create a pipeline so we can actually fill those positions.” Lightfoot did not comment on the Lincoln Yards TIF.

The auditorium featured a number of red-shirted CTU activists.

  man complained that he was a public service worker with a master’s degree, yet still paid in the “low forties.” Another urged her to “unleash local Chicago optimism” by giving “zoning leeway” to “locals from the community.” Another questioner voiced her opposition to bike lanes and, after arguing additional property tax hikes would hurt renters, advised the mayor to invest in youth programs. Yet another urged the City to purchase ComEd, stating “there are no market-based solutions” to climate change. To these and many other questions, Mayor Lightfoot responded with a simple thank you and took note of the suggestions.

Budget surplus?

Rodney Shelton, a Chicago Fire Department employee from the West Side, said a 2016 article from Crain’s Chicago Business indicated the City actually had a $3 billion surplus. “So, where’s the money?” he asked.

“Sir, I’m not familiar with that particular article, but I can assure you we do not have a $3 billion surplus,” said Lightfoot. “We wouldn’t be talking about many of the issues that we’re talking about today. We wouldn’t have an affordable housing crisis. That article is flat-out wrong.”

Another woman at the microphone asserted that, “311 is doing a very good job. We don’t need 50 aldermen!” Her comments drew applause and cheers from the crowd.

One entrepreneur encouraged Mayor Lightfoot to cut down the bureaucracy entrepreneurs must navigate to create food trucks in the city.

“You’re 100% right,” said Lightfoot. “How much it costs just to get a business in the city is absurd, and we are working on some very specific responses on that.”

Citing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” policing and cleanup strategy, another questioner urged Mayor Lightfoot to go after what she called “the piddly laws” to bring down the city’s crime rate.

“Make the people who break the law pay for the law,” she continued, describing her experience with a loud event near her house. “The way this yard was so full of people, if the police would have issued a citation, you’d have a gold mine right there.” Some in the audience, however, particularly the CTU section, began to boo and scream, “No!”

“I appreciate a variety of opinions,” said Mayor Lightfoot in response to the boos. “We may not agree on everything, but we must be respectful,” she added to applause.

No more parking meter deals

“I want to talk about the parking meters,” said questioner Jack Williams. “What public asset are you going to sell off next?”

“None,” replied Lightfoot.

About 75 minutes into the event, protestors interrupted to protest the Lincoln Yards TIF. After they finished, the organizers forgot to start the 90 second counter for the next speaker.

Megan Selby, a sexual health educator who questioned Mayor Lightfoot during the town hall, expressed skepticism afterward about Lightfoot’s claims that the budget was a significant problem for the city.

“They’re not listening,” said Selby. “These comments—they’re not seeing any action. Where’s the response? It’s not in the current budget. What the mayor and the City are saying is that we have this huge deficit and that it’s going to be really hard to cover it. Well, actually, people are telling you exactly how to cover it. Tax the rich!”

“I hope it empowers and inspires more of us to get involved,” said attendee April Mahajan, a sustainability specialist who explained that her passion for urban development motivated her to come to the morning event. “It’s unfortunate that all of us inherited a pension deficit—all these accounts that have been underfunded that we have to really address. The more that we can fix our city to be more equitable and sustainable for everyone is so important. It’s not just one group or another.

According to Mahajan, “the fact that they offered and invited people to come to City Hall and further flesh out some of these bigger ideas—even some of their very specific community programs and initiatives” makes her optimistic the town hall had a real impact on the mayor and the city.

“Hopefully these conversations continue,” she added.

To comment on the budget through an online survey and see the survey results, go to Chicago.gov/2020Budget. To see the city’s 2020 budget forecast, visit Chicago.gov/2020BudgetForecast.