Harris: ‘There needs to be a culture change’

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) heard the rumors and her suspicions were confirmed after receiving a phone call.

“I was told that the Democratic Party was rescinding its support for Dorothy Brown for the Clerk of the Circuit Court and was supporting me,” recalled Harris after receiving the decision of the Cook County Democrats. “It’s amazing. I had overwhelming support.”

Brown has been Circuit Court Clerk since 2000 and originally had the support of the Cook County Democrats. But an ongoing federal corruption investigation of Brown resulted in the local Democrats looking in another direction.

The Democratic Party informed Brown on Oct. 23 that they rescinded their support and were backing Harris. Despite a passionate plea by Brown, the Democrats told her at the slating meeting that the decision was final.

Harris was formally introduced that night at the Cook County Suburban Publishers dinner. Not to be outdone, Brown was also in attendance trying to sway party members.

Along with Brown and Harris, Jacob Meister, an attorney who has been practicing law for 25 years, is also running in the Democratic primary. The winner in the Democratic primary race will face Diane Shapiro, the Republican committeeman from Chicago’s 46th Ward. Shapiro is unopposed in the primary.

In an election year that Harris said is “upside down,” she said her greatest challenge is to inform the public on what the duties of the Circuit Court Clerk are.

“There needs to be a culture change,” said Harris. “Government is there to serve the public, not the other way around. We need to be cross-trained in all departments. We are in the people-pleasing business. It’s about delivering what people want.”

The office of Clerk of the Circuit Court keeps court records, decisions and events, handles fines, bail bonds, records storage, microfilming and automation.

Harris has lived in the 8th Ward for over 40 years and has been a member of the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization for over 30 years. She is a graduate of Chicago Vocational High School and received a bachelor’s degree in General Studies from Chicago State University.

She said that Cook County Board President John Stroger served as a mentor. She was chief of staff under her aunt, Ald. Lorraine Dixon (8th), for over five years. Dixon died of breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 51. Harris was also a liaison to Peoples Gas and ComEd for Dixon.

Harris has been a member of various committees and served as superintendent of Streets and Sanitation for the 8th Ward, which she took great pride in. She often went with workers and assisted in dispensing garbage. Harris said she wanted to get a better idea of what the job entails. She held the position of superintendent for four years.

In 2006, Harris was appointed alderman by former Mayor Daley to replace Todd Stroger, who became Cook County Board President after his father, John Stroger, suffered a debilitating stroke. Harris has won aldermanic elections in 2007, 2011 and 2015.

Harris said one of her first goals, if elected, is to update criminal records. She said the system has to be updated because it creates frustration for the judicial system and attorneys who have to wait lengthy periods to receive records of information. Even bail bond information has to be improved, said Harris. Hand-written carbon copies may not be clear and the information is often recorded incorrectly, said Harris.

“That’s why we have to do this first,” said Harris. “Waiting for files and incorrect information costs money.”

Brown said her system is not antiquated and that her department has introduced programs such as electronic filing, the online traffic ticket payment system, mortgage surplus outreach and a new mobile app. Brown added that she seeks to deliver new and enhanced services at the clerk’s office.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Brown.

Harris disagrees, stating that Brown is “on an island” and doesn’t work enough with other agencies.

“What I have learned as alderman is that you have to learn to work with people,” said Harris. “The people will let you know how they feel.”

Meister calls for the circuit court to become completely automated and said that it will need more funding. Harris agrees that more technology is necessary but said costs have to be considered initially. More computer terminals can be added when not enough manpower exists, she said.

Harris disagrees with her critics who say she lacks managerial experience. The alderman said she has worked with former Gov. Quinn to build an improved sewer system in her ward and worked with state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-17th) to raise funds for infrastructure improvements at Chicago Vocational High School.

Facing the challenges as alderman has prepared her to lead the circuit court, Harris said. She has also served as chairman of the City Council Rules Committee.

She was criticized in some circles for not holding a hearing on an ordinance to empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson. However, she joined other members of the Black Caucus calling for the firing of Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who she said did not listen to the needs of the communications he serves. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has a mostly positive relationship with Harris, dismissed McCarthy that month.

“People want to see you,” said Harris. “I can’t depend on the Democratic Party to get the word out. I appreciate it. Government puts me in a position to help people. It’s all about the community. It’s not about Michelle Harris.”

The primary election is Tuesday, March 15.

Rauner claims Madigan balks on university funding bill

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Gov. Bruce Rauner accused House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd) on Monday of manipulating the presidents of colleges and universities in Illinois to refrain from backing any measures proposed by the governor or Republicans before the March 15 primary.

Rauner’s latest salvo came after the governor vetoed two variations of bills to provide funding for college students through the Monetary Awards Programs, or MAP grants, during the past month. State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) introduced the first version of the bill that passed through the Senate.

The governor said he supports a bill that is sponsored by state Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-5th) to provide $160 million in emergency funding to universities. Rauner had invited several university presidents to stand beside him at a press conference.

According to Rauner, the presidents rejected the idea of attending a press conference because they did not want to anger Madigan. Rauner believes Madigan wants the budget impasse to continue to counter the governor.

“We have a bipartisan bill to fund our universities right now that I can support,” said Rauner. “Madigan won’t call the bill.”

Dunkin introduced HB 6409 last week. The state representative, who faces a Democratic primary challenge from Juliana Stratton, said the bill would provide funding to assist Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University. Rauner said Dunkin’s Bill would provide funding for these schools without raising taxes or cutting any social services.

In the meantime, Democrats are still considering presenting additional bills. Dunkin has recently sided with Rauner on several issues and has drawn the ire of Madigan and other local Democrats. The likelihood of Democrats supporting a bill by Dunkin is unlikely.

State Sen Bill Cunningham (D-18th) said that hearings would be held this week to come up with ideas to work with the governor on ways to bring an end to the budget stalemate.

“We can take a look at the need for reforms,” said Cunningham. “I hope by doing this we can talk to the governor and compromise on other issues, like funding for the MAP grants. Those reforms can be talked about, along with the pensions.”

Some local Democrats have said that negotiations with the governor have not gone well up to this point. Republicans have been calling for 20 percent cut in state funding for higher education for the 2016-17 year. However, that would be a reduction of the 30 percent cut that Rauner requested last year.

“I believe we can get something done,” said Burke last week. “If we just talk about the budget, we can work something out. I keep talking to Democrats and Republicans for ideas.”

Steve Brown, the longtime spokesperson for Madigan, said that Rauner is “the only one who has cut higher education.”

Rauner vetoed the bill that Madigan called to provide $721 million for higher education and MAP grants for lower-income students. The bill would have also provided $40 million for community colleges.

The governor rejected the bill because he said it would create a larger hole in the state budget. Burke joined other legislators in sending a letter to the governor to talk about a solution to the budget standoff.

Burke defended her bill to free up higher education grants for eligible students, saying the time to act is now.

“So let’s honor those commitments and let’s get the ball rolling on the MAP grants and the funding for the community college.”

Dr. Sylvia Jenkins, president of Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, was disappointed that Burke’s original bills were not given more consideration by the governor. Jenkins said Moraine is in good shape for now but is concerned about the future depending on how long this budget impasse lasts.

“Some colleges will have to close programs and some teachers will have to be let go,” said Jenkins.

Rush facing two challengers in 1st Congressional District

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

One of the few contested elections in the southwest suburbs on March 15 ballots will be the race between incumbent Cong. Bobby Rush (D-1st) and two challengers battling for the seat in Congress that he has held since 1993.

The 1st District stretches south and west from the Chicago lakefront to communities such as Manhattan and Elwood in Will County. Locally, it includes alll or part of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Palos Heights, Worth and Orland Park, as well as nearby communities such as Alsip and Crestwood.

Rush, 69, seldom has serious primary challengers, but this year, Howard Brookins Jr., and O. Patrick Brutus are running against him.

In the November general election, whoever wins will face either Jimmy Lee Tillman II or August O’Neill Deuser, the two candidates running in the Republican primary for the seat long held by Democrats.

Tillman, who promises to provide representation to "the urban and middle-class communities in Cook County to the rural and bedroom communities in Will County," is the son of former Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman.

Brookins, who has garnered the backing of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd), the chairman of the state Democratic Party, probably has the greatest chance of unseating the incumbent. He is an attorney now serving his third term as alderman of the 21st Ward on the South Side of Chicago.

In addition to being alderman since 2003, he is also a partner in the Brookins and Wilson law firm, as well as a licensed funeral director. Prior to that, Brookins was an assistant public defender, assistant state’s attorney, and special assistant attorney general. He serves on the board of Community Media Workshop, a no-profit organization.

Brookins lists the three core issues of his campaign as job creation, public safety, and education.

He has criticized Rush for not being accessible enough to his constituents.

Patrick has been coordinator of economic development for the Department of Planning and Development for the past nine years. Prior to that, he spent 11 years with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Madigan has not said publicly why he has given his support to Brookins, but his father, Howard Brookins Sr., served in the Illinois Legislature with Madigan from 1982 to 1992, first as a representative and then a senator.

Brooks has said that he has known Madigan since his father was a state representative, and asked him for his support and was “proud” to get it.

Brookins is listed as the preferred candidate on voting information being distributed by Madigan’s organization.

While Rush is often accused of not being accessible in his district or active in Washington, a press release posted on his website points out the House's passage on Monday of a bill he introduced aimed at opening up more jobs for minorities in the energy sector won bipartisan approval. It will now go to the Senate for consideration.

With the passage of H.R. 4583, Rush said in a statement, “Today, the American public witnessed a House united in creating economic growth for all people,” said Rush. “Here we have bipartisan members of the Energy and Commerce Committee who represent various constituencies from diverse regions of the country and who come with different political persuasions. We were able to put aside our differences and focus our efforts on bringing forth a jobs bill that will benefit all communities and help lift up the entire American economy.”

Hickory Hills to consolidate emergency phone boards and 911 center

  • Written by By Sharon L. Filkins

Seeking to comply with recent legislation passed earlier this year regarding Emergency Telephone System Boards (ETSB) and Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), Hickory Hills Council members agreed to consolidate its existing ETSB and maintain its own 911 emergency dispatch center.

The agreement was reached at the Feb.25 Committee of the Whole Meeting, where council members reviewed a report from Police Chief Alan Vodicka in which he presented two options available to meet the ETSB/PSAP legislation.

According to Vodicka, the new statute requires Emergency Telephone System Boards, which serve a population of less than 25,000, to consolidate into a 911 Authority that meets the population requirement.

Currently, the city’s ETSB is comprised of seven members appointed by Mayor Mike Howley. They are responsible for overseeing the collection and disbursement of 911 surcharge funds.

Vodicka said the statute also requires the reduction of PSAPs by at least 50 per cent or 2 PSAPs, whichever is greater. The city’s Emergency 911 center is designated as a PSAP.

In addition, the statute further requires ETSBs to submit consolidation plans to the State 911 director by July 1, and complete the consolidation process by July 1, 2017.

“Option 1 would be to outsource the City’s 911 dispatching services and possibly shut down the 24/7 operation of the city’s Police Facility,” said Vodicka.

In Option 2, Hickory Hills’ ETSB will merge with other towns on the same radio frequency that utilizes the same Records Management and Computer Aided Dispatch Software. The towns include Justice, Bedford Park, Willow Springs, Summit and possibly Hometown

After listing the costs and benefits involved with the two options, it was Vodicka’s recommendation that Option 2 was the best choice for the city.

Vodicka said later that outsourcing 911 dispatching services was such a minimal savings over time that it didn’t warrant the city making the change.

“The approval to move forward with this action is just the beginning. We now have to move forward with outreach to the other communities and then we will need resolutions drafted and approved. It is a process,” he said.

The regular council meeting followed the Committee of the Whole Meeting.

During the council segment, approval was given to a financial summary presented by City Treasurer Dan Schramm. The summary was a review of the last nine months of the 2015-16 Fiscal Year.

Schramm reported that all city funds are within budget.

Also approved was a $100 donation for Aaron Appliances Open House/Customer Appreciation Day, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 11 at 9600 S. Roberts Road. According to Howley, the donation will benefit the Ronald McDonald House and the city will be listed as a sponsor.

Other approvals included a Class E Liquor License for Lacey’s Place at 7831 W. 95th St., and the purchase of a Hawks pick-up truck for $19,000 by the Public Works Department.

Ald. Debbie Ferrero (2nd Ward) announced that business applications for the city’s Street Fair, scheduled for June 25 and 26, will be distributed through The Hills Chamber this year instead of being mailed by the city.

Interested applicants should contact Phyllis Maka, chamber president, at (708) 233-6860.

Chicago Ridge Board awaits decision on receiving CDBG grants

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

The deadline for applying for Community Development Block Grant funds through the state is approaching, and the Chicago Ridge Village Board spent some time at the Tuesday meeting discussing whether to seek CDBG funds for street improvements of water tower renovation.

Village engineer Andrew Pufundt informed the board that applications will be due in April for the CDBG grants, which are funds from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development that are distributed by states. He said that last year, municipalities applied for grants for as much as $400,000, and it is hoped that about that much would be available this year as well.

Mayor Chuck Tokar pointed out that last year the village’s application for a CDBG grant to be used for rehabbing the village water tower was turned down, after being awarded the previous year for another project. CDBG funds can only be used for utility or infrastructure repairs.

“Maybe they were just reluctant to give it to us two years in a row,” he said.

Tokar suggested that because the cost of the maintenance work needed to be done on the village water tower, including exterior painting and interior inspection, has been estimated to cost $800,000, that might not be the best project to use CDBG funds on. He said it would still leave the village with a bill of at least $400,000 to cover the remaining costs.

The mayor said any grant money received might be better used on street improvements.

“We do have quite a few streets that need repairs and qualify for the money,” he said, noting that CDBG funds can only be used in areas of municipalities where the average income does not exceed a certain level.

“There is no doubt that a lot of our streets have really gotten a battering in recent years,” Tokar said, adding that last winter was much worse than the current one.

However, Trustee Jack Lind stressed the importance of maintaining the water tower.

“I agree the streets are very important, but we can’t wait for CDBG funds to get the water tower done. We don’t know when they will be coming anyway,” said Lind, the former public works director, suggesting that a bond issue might be needed to pay for it, rather than depleting the water and sewer fund or other village accounts to do it.

Lind said the water tower project entails much more than repainting the exterior.

“There is nothing more important to a community than its water supply. Ours is fine now, but we want to keep it that way. Some repairs are needed inside the tower,” he said.

“I have a background in this and we need a comprehensive study done every so many years,” said Lind. He said it may have been 16 years or more since the last one was done.

Lind explained that such a study would include inspecting the outside of the tower, and then using a camera to inspect the inside.

At his request, the board agreed to ask Public Works Director Stanley Barwock to get the process started, by seeking proposals to get the study done.

“You have your marching orders now, Stan,” Tokar told the director, who was in the audience.

In other business the board passed a resolution approving the village’s purchase of a vacant restaurant property at 10255 S. Harlem Ave. for $650,000.

Lind and Trustee Sally Durkin said after the meeting that acquisition of the former Nicobee’s restaurant, which will be torn down, was important because the property is located just south of a vacant trucking terminal that the village is trying to market to a developer.