Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Fly In the Ointment

On Monday, hell seemed to freeze over, at least momentarily, as a nephew of King Richard II (a.k.a. former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley) was indicted for involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of David Koschman.  After eight years, David's mother will finally have some measure of justice and Richard J. Vanecko will learn that the Daley name is not a get out of jail free card.

Current Mayor Emanuel I (a.k.a. 'Il Duce') had little to say on the verdict, but that's because he was barraged this week with a long string of lawsuits against the city that he inherited from the Daley era.  Among them is the recently settled case against former Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate who nearly beat to death a bartender in a drunken fit of rage. 

The city lost that case and will need to turn over $850,000 in damages to the assaulted bartender, Karolina Obrycka.  But they are desperately trying at 'Il Duce's' behest to erase the trial verdict and settle the lawsuit after the fact.  If they don't succeed, the "code of silence" portion of Obrycka's winning defense would open the door to future lawsuits against the city, particularly its checkered (pun intended) police department. 

Emanuel was visibly annoyed at a press conference on Tuesday when asked by reporters about his attempts to erase the verdict.  Ironically the Mayor seems to want silence on a case where defense attorney's successfully proved how "a code of silence" can lead to tragic results. 

All of this, however, is smoke and mirrors.  Blocking from our vision the real problem.  That problem is the hidebound, complacent, and highly bureaucratic legal system that supposedly protects Chicagoans from those that would harm them and (in the case of Abbate) from the supposed protectors themselves. 

Anyone who still believes in the Cook County Judicial system needs to read Courtroom 302.  Steve Bogira's in depth look at the cases that pass through courtroom 302 in the criminal courts building at 26th and California is highly revealing of a system where justice is often traded for expediency. 

Yet another place to look is at the record of the current Cook County State's Attorney--Anita Alvarez.  Taking her cue from the tragi-comic villains of classic fiction such as Judge Angelo in Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure and the policeman Javert in Victor Hugo's Les Miserable, she takes the concept of an over-zealous prosecutor to new heights.  Zeroing in on smallest foible she is content at the same time to ignore the fiasco behind her. 

It's good to know that Alvarez will make sure to punish students from the Medill Innocence Project while murders on the south and west sides of Chicago are on record to outpace military casualties in Afghanistan. 

I'd like to say that there's a light at the end of the tunnel for Chicago Justice.  Perhaps the Vanecko verdict is just that.  Our real hope, however, lies not in the courtroom but at the ballot box.  Chicago voters need to pay more attention about who they vote into office.  It doesn't take much for a nobody to become the next Jean Valjean.  Just a finger pointed in your direction and a prosecutor who smells blood in the water. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Case of the Missing Congressman

Election 2012 is almost at an end with early voters heading to the polls and the rest of the nation soon to follow on November 6.  Many of you I'm sure will draw a sigh of relief as the political commercials disappear from your evening television line up and commutes to work will no longer include shaking hands with some random politician who "would really appreciate your vote."

Unfortunately for voters in Chicago's 2nd Congressional District, the drama will not end on November 6.  You see, they have a congressman, but he is missing in action.

That congressman is Jesse Jackson Jr., the oldest son of Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr.  Since early this summer, Jackson Jr. has been on medical leave from the U.S. House of Representatives.  Rumors have circulated as to the nature of his illness.  It was only recently that family members hinted that Jackson Jr. was suffering from bi-polar depression and general "exhaustion."  Congressman Jackson has only spoken once on his condition, confirming this month that he is "not well." 

News reporters, along with the general public, have been mystified by the Congressman's silence on his condition.  It has led many to speculate that Congressman Jackson is preparing himself for a possible federal indictment on corruption charges.

Jackson's behavior has been particularly mystifying given the recent news stories surrounding another Illinois legislator, Senator Mark Kirk.  Having suffered a stroke, Kirk's press team was quick to report the legislator's illness and provide regular updates on his progress.  This has led to at least a greater appearance of transparency.  It also probably makes Senator Kirk's constituents more likely to remain patient as he has been absent from congress for nearly a year.

The mystery surrounding Jackson Jr.'s illness can't help but remind Chicagoans less of Mark Kirk or Arizona congresswoman Gabriel Giffords forced absences from the Congress than of Cook County Board President John Stroger's mysterious absence from office around the time of the 2006 primary election.

Suffering from a stroke, Stroger nonetheless carried the Democratic primary as his staff concealed from voters the extent of his illness.  Ultimately unable to finish his term, Stroger had his son (Todd Stroger) placed on the ticket in his place while his friend Bobbi Steele finished out John Stroger's term.

Nepotism was clearly at play in the Stroger family closet drama.  It is less clear what Jackson Jr.'s political play might be.

If Jackson were really the public servant that he claims to be for members of the Illinois 2nd Congressional District, he would do the right thing.  He would offer to step down immediately. This would not only give Jackson the time he needs to recover but also would give his constituents the representation they deserve.

You're not a basketball player Congressman Jackson.  Step down and let someone else serve your district.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Seller's Remorse

"Are you feeling alright King Richard?"  That's what Chicagoans should have been asking former Mayor Richard M. Daley back in January 2009 when he signed a 75 year lease turning Chicago's parking meters over to a consortium of private investors calling themselves Chicago Parking Meters L.L.C.

In return for this lease, Chicago received a one time cash infusion of $1.2 Billion dollars.  On the surface this seemed like a good deal.  A private company would take on the burden of managing the city's extensive network of parking meters and Chicago would obtain a substantial "rainy day" fund. But then problems started popping up thick and fast.

The first of these was the infamous "quarter jams" that made the older coin operated meters malfunction and led to unnecessary tickets.  Since they are a private company, Chicago Parking Meters raised the hourly rates for parking around the city (in some locations by as much as 50%).  This required more quarters for each person who parked in the space and caused the meter box to fill up with coins faster than it could be emptied.

Then came the "pay and display" boxes that allowed payment by credit card but whose buttons frequently jammed in Chicago's cold weather and whose display screens were often impossible to read.

Once these kinks were ironed out, the next problem was the portion of the lease requiring the city to pay Chicago Parking Meters whenever an event closed a city street or city parking lot with meters.

The grumbling hasn't stopped since the ink dried on King Richard's deal, but little (we thought) could be done.  Until now.

Today "Il Duce" (a.k.a. Mayor Rahm Emanuel) ordered an audit of the parking meter lease.  Emanuel is hoping to use this audit to avoid paying Chicago Parking Meters L.L.C. the $50 Million dollars in lost fees that C.P.M. says the city owes them and their investors.

Whether Il Duce's power play works or not, you have to give him credit for being ballsy.  Now that most of the lease money is spent, it seems like he's going to not only contest the street closure fees C.P.M. claims by right of the lease but also try to find a way out of the lease.

If he fails and can't find a way to spin that failure (like his horribly mismanaged performance during the teacher's strike), then he's a schmuck from Wilmette.  If he succeeds, he just might make us forget his predecessor--the King who took leave of his senses and sold our parking to the highest bidder.

What a town!  Let's hope the Mayor can out-hustle the hustlers.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Bully Meets His Match

Whatever King Emanuel wants, he gets.  Or at least that's the attitude that Chicago's current Mayor Rahm Emanuel has held during his nearly year and half term of office.  Apparently convinced that he channels the gravitas of one time King and now consultant, Richard II (i.e. Richard M. Daley), Emanuel has gone to work to dismantle (in no particular order):  city sanitation, Chicago public schools, and the right to peaceful protest.

In their place he offers Chicagoan the tired remains of Daley's late-term fixation on "public-private partnerships."  Only this time he chooses to call these leftovers a "public trust."  Does parking meter privatization by another name smell as sweet?  Emanuel seems to think so.  I wonder what venture capitalists will get their hands on this time.  Perhaps our city water supply.

The current mayor's haste to push through his agenda with little or no debate shows his incomplete understanding of the previous mayor and the machine that made Daley's long reign possible.

Yes, Daley was a bully.  He frequently ridiculed aldermen who refused to agree with his initiatives and left them little time to even review the documents.  Hence the terrible parking meter deal.  Yes, Daley was inarticulate and often downright vague.  His press conferences often left you wondering if he had been dropped on his head as a child.  Stick a handgun up my where Mr. Mayor?  Yes, he wanted to encourage more partnerships between the city and private enterprises.  Millennium Park remains an advertisement of the success of that plan.

But....Daley delivered the goods.  Like Millennium Park and its many free events.  What have you done for us lately King Emanuel?

Well I can tell you what he hasn't done.  He hasn't expanded city festivals.  They are in fact getting smaller.  He hasn't made full use of the cultural center.  Most of it sits empty.  The bread and circuses of the Daley reign are coming to an end and the natives are getting restless.

Exhibit A:  The Teacher's Strike.  Teacher's strikes aren't a new thing in Chicago.  Before Richard M. Daley they were almost a regular occurrence.  This one, however, had special meaning.  Faced with Emanuel's push to expand charter schools, Chicago Teacher's Union members pushed back.  They walked out for over a week and clogged the streets of downtown Chicago wearing bright red shirts and shouting back at the bully who tried to steal their lunch.

Exhibit B:  The recent decision by Cook County Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly to throw out the curfew violation convictions against 92 members of the Occupy movement.  Emanuel has promised to appeal this decision but the Judge's argument is irrefutable.  You can't allow one group to use the park after hours (i.e. Lollapalooza or President Obama's inauguration ceremony) and not another.  It's public land.  Remember?

Perhaps you should hire Daley as a personal consultant Mr. Mayor.  He could teach a suburban kid such as yourself how Chicago works.  Because right now, your roots are showing and you're a long way from the North Shore.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Murder off the Mag Mile

In the news this week was the report of a murder at the upscale Whitehall Hotel (105 E. Delaware Pl.) just off the Magnificent Mile.  A young woman identified as Brianna Gardner, 22 was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head at 10 am on Monday.  Housekeeping found her body in the 7th floor room and immediately called the police.  Research conducted on the victim's background suggests that she was working as a prostitute.  Gardner had previous arrests on August 8 in Chicago for solicitation and back in April she was arrested for the same crime in Harris County, Texas.

Gardner is not the first woman working as a prostitute to be killed in this tony area of Chicago.  Back in October of last year a woman was killed at the boutique hotel Felix in the River North area.  Although these crimes aren't related, the killer in the October incident is currently behind bars, both murders open a window on the sex trafficking business in Chicago.

Here in the windy city the streetwalker is largely a thing of the past.  Replacing this 70's era figure, made iconic in such classic films as Taxi Driver and the blaxploitation picture Coffy, is an entrepreneur modelling herself on the much earlier madames of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  She will invest her money in the right places and know when the time is right to get out of the business.  

Of course, most never do get out of the business and the whole equation changes when drugs and organized crime enter the mix.  Suddenly the cannily self-employed (or independent contractor if you will) becomes simply another worker in the heartbreaking game of capitalism.

Eventually we may learn what happened to Brianna Gardner.  At the moment what is interesting to consider, however, is how reality can sometimes put a damper on our fantasies  Who hasn't dreamed at some point in their life of a sugar daddy or sugar momma?  At some time all you good girls and boys must have considered what sex is like on the darker side of town or else E.L. James (a.k.a. Fifty Shades of Grey lady) would still be a relative unknown.  Stripper inspired exercises and burlesque classes would not have taken off either.

And yet....  Sometimes you can't have your cake and eat it too.  Unless a culture can be honest with itself about sex and sexual desires, women on the fringe are more likely to die.

Update:  A suspect is now in custody for the murder.  His cell phone was found in Gardner's room.  Although police have not yet released his name, news sources indicate that he has prior convictions for theft, aggravated assault, and possession of illegal drugs.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chicago's Secret Tax Hike

This Saturday at The College of Complexes I had the pleasure of hearing Ben Joravsky speak on the topic of Tax Increment Financing or TIFs.  Anyone who has been a regular reader of his columns in the Chicago Reader knows that this topic has become something of a white whale for Joravsky, obsessing him for nearly 8 years.  What they might not realize, however, is that Chicago has reached a pivotal moment in the use of TIFs as a development tool.

Tax Increment Financing has been around for a long time.  In Illinois, TIFs trace their origins to enabling legislation passed in 1977.  The shift from direct state aid to TIFs was made in response to several factors.  First there was the growing reality of urban blight that accompanied the movement of industry overseas and the flight of the middle class from inner cities to outer neighborhoods and suburbs.  Then there was the growing distaste for direct government programs of the Great Society or New Deal type.  Finally, the growth of TIFs reflected the empty coffers of most government agencies at the time, especially at the local level.

In an ideal world, TIFs work in a relatively predicable way.  Local government creates what is known as a TIF zone.  The creation of this zone is supposed to be done in consultation with residents and businesses in the area.  Following the creation of a TIF zone, property taxes are frozen at an agreed upon level for a set number of years.  Local schools and other municipal agencies that receive funding through property taxes will continue to collect revenue at this fixed rate.  Any additional revenue created by property improvement in a TIF zone is placed into a special account.  That money is intended for use in the TIF zone on projects that will improve the quality of life for its residents.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is far from ideal.  As Joravsky has pointed out in numerous Reader articles on the subject, TIF funds have little or no oversight and TIF zones are often created in areas that are far from blighted without residents even being aware of their creation.  For the curious Chicago-area reader, here is a map of the current TIF zones in Chicago from the county clerk.  This has led to the use of TIF funds to add planters in the middle of loop area roadways or to create tourist attractions such as Millennium Park.  Although these changes do make the center city more attractive to locals as well as visitors, the loop hardly qualifies as a blighted area.  Nor do these projects add much in the way of property tax revenue to the TIF zone let alone the city--the avowed purpose of TIF legislation in the first place.

For those who have followed the scandalous progress of TIFs in Chicago, most of this is old news. What many may not realize, however, is that TIFs in the Chicago area operate like a secret property tax hike.

In order to maintain stable funding in municipal services, property taxes in non-TIF zones must raise over time to fill the deficit caused by what is essentially a development subsidy given to TIF zones.  These rises in the tax rate are not discussed or voted upon.  They simply appear on your tax bill.  And the gap only gets worse as inflation and added demand upon city services are both taken into account.

Thanks in large part to Joravsky's investigative journalism, area tax payers are becoming aware of this scandalous backdoor revenue generating scheme.  Yet they haven't been angry enough to vote in their own best interest and bring the TIF program to a swift end.  The current financial climate, however, may change that.

In 2010, Cook County Clerk David Orr called for a six-month moratorium on the creation of TIF districts in Chicago.  He was largely ignored.  Now in 2012, Orr's report for 2011 has come out and shows that TIFs are no longer earning revenue.  Daley's cash cow appears to have run dry and our newly crowned King Emanuel is left holding the bag.

With TIFs no longer serving their intended purpose, one can only hope that local government will come to its senses and disband the program.  Voters and taxpayers need to watch out, however, to make sure that Emanuel's City Trust doesn't simply slide in to take the TIFs place.  You can't have improved city services without higher taxes.  No amount of creative financing or public/private partnerships can hide that unpalatable fact.

It's time for Chicago to set a clear and responsible budget that meets our short term needs while at the same time placing remaining TIF funds in a long-term development fund with clear goals and strict oversight.

Is this a pipe dream?  Perhaps.  But I imagine many felt the same way about air travel.  It's up to you Chicago.  Tell your leaders what you want.  Both in the ballet box and out on the streets.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Garbage, Garbage, Everywhere

Over the past month and a half I've been involved in an intense operation called--"move in girlfriend."  This has involved purchasing, packing, and moving box after box of her possessions and (thank God) just a few pieces of furniture. 

What I discovered during this process is that first of all movers are worth every penny.  On the day we move out of my current apartment, I'm hiring someone.  It also became increasingly clear that while small items are easy to give away, no one seems to want old furniture anymore. 

This truism became painfully clear when I attempted to donate her old mattress as well as an armchair that I no longer wanted. 

I can understand the reluctance of local charities to accept mattress donations, especially with the resurgence of bedbugs.  So even though I brought the mattress to the Salvation Army, I was pretty certain they wouldn't be interested in taking it.  But it wasn't until I tried to find a responsible way to dispose of the mattress that I discovered just how messed up Chicago's garbage collection system really is. 

After nearly a week of searching, no options for recycling or disposing the mattress could be found beyond the obvious--leave it in the alley. 

So that is what I did.  Eventually the mattress and box spring disappeared.  But it was no thanks to a city-wide recycling plan or drop off center.  The Alley Fairies did what our local government seems unwillingly or unable to do.

Now I'm faced with a similar dilemma for my old armchair.  So far I can't find an organization that will come to pick it up and don't plan to drag it to the Salvation Army only to have them tell me they aren't interested.  Could it be alley time again?  Perhaps.  Unlike the mattress, I'm still looking for someone to take it so that it can have a new owner and won't simply fill a suburban dump with more Chicago garbage. 

I have no desire to take away the livelihood of the neighborhood junk man/junk woman but as a former resident of the state of Vermont, which has an excellent recycling system for almost any item imaginable, the garbage disposal system in Chicago makes me sick.

Perhaps when Mayor Emanuel is done privatizing our schools he can focus his attention on the city recycling system.  It will give him a great opportunity to take an old Daley-era idea and claim that it is his own.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Transit Dependent

For those of us without automobiles, we spend more time paying attention to transit updates than traffic reports. Unfortunately for people living in Chicago, those updates tend to occur only once you have crossed the turnstile and paid your fare.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is not known for its advanced planning or customer relations, a fact of life that came into sharp focus last weekend when southbound service on the red line was suspended from Jarvis to Loyola and streets near these stops abruptly closed to traffic.  Compounding the inconvenience to residents living near these three stops was the previously announced closure on June 1st of the Granville station for a six week rehab project.

Yet this inconvenience pales in comparison to what will take place in the spring of next year when the CTA will close the ENTIRE red line from the Cermak-Chinatown stop to 95th-Dan Ryan.  Free and reduced fare bus service will be made available throughout this portion of the red line as well as expanded train service on the green line.  However, these closures will add a significant amount of time to passenger's commutes and will more than likely reduce future ridership on this CTA line.  The closure of the green line in the mid-1990s led to greatly decreased ridership in the years following the project's completion.

Those with cars will more than likely be added to the city's already congested streets during this construction period, but those who are truly transit dependent will simply have to plan ahead and lose more of their day to the ever increasingly transit times.  

If you live near the red line, there is no dispute that the train line is in desperate need of repair.  A few months ago another chunk of the concrete viaduct supporting the train fell down into my alley.  I got to observe this as I was throwing out my trash. Thank God it hit the ground instead of me.

But something rankles at the thought of a full closure of 24/7 rail service in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods while rolling closures are put in place where commuters have more choices for getting around.

If you want a lesson in racial segregation in Chicago, look no further than the renovation of the red line.  The south side gets shafted again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bring Back The Warsaw Pact

Clay Shirky once claimed that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."  I can think of no better way to explain the dogged survival of NATO more than twenty years after the fall of communism.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949.  It created an alliance of European nations who (along with United States support) would prevent a communist takeover of what remained of "free Europe" at the end of the second world war.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it became clear that communism was no longer a major threat to free Europe.  This suspicion was confirmed in 1991 when the United Soviet Socialist Republic or USSR collapsed and slowly morphed into what we now call (again) Russia.

After these events, NATO was left without a mandate.  But rather than disband and declare victory, NATO found a new mission in the former Yugoslavia.  Operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the one time defender against communist domination of Europe became a "peace-keeping" organization modeled along the lines of the United Nations.

This new mandate has remained essentially unchanged since the 1990s but has been expanded since September 11, 2001to include a role in the "global war on terror."  NATO was (and remains) the major enforcer of the Bush Doctrine as it has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Libya.

NATO's history is worth noting as the organization that refuses to die makes an appearance in Chicago this weekend.  Much has been made in the news about the protesters who will come and make trouble and the security measures being undertaken to make sure that Mayor Emanuel can show off his "world class city" to the NATO leaders.  Yet no one in the media has addressed the key question of why NATO still exists.

EVERYTHING that NATO does is already possible in another venue--The United Nations.  The only difference is one of scale and membership.  Much larger than NATO, the United Nations clearly has greater difficulty passing resolutions than NATO. The United Nations also has a much less "white" membership that more closely represents the majority population of the globe.

In a climate where money is scarce for social programs and austerity is the word du jour, it makes no sense to have two organizations that possess the same mandate.  The United States should either invest its time and money in the United Nations or admit what many of us already suspected.  Namely, that they prefer the gated community of NATO to the scary inner-city neighborhood that is the UN.

As an undergraduate taking courses in foreign politics back in the late 90s, I argued that NATO was a waste of time and treasure.  I still feel that way to day.  Communism, pace Sarah Bachman, is no longer a serious threat.  The only way my perspective on this issue would change is if Russia re-instituted it's Eastern European equivalent to NATO--the Warsaw Pact.

So if you think that NATO should still exist.  I have one simple request:  start working to bring back the Warsaw Pact.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

In a recent press interview, Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel was quoted as saying "I'm not in the position of analysis. I'm in the position of getting things done." His words were in response to ongoing criticism of the Public-Private Trust that Emanuel hopes to establish in Chicago to pay for upgrades to city infrastructure.

Details remain sketchy on this trust, but its basic premise seems to be that the city would put an infrastructure project out to bid (such as bridge repair) and a private company would then pay for all construction associated with that public asset. After the parking meter debacle under the previous mayor, Emanuel was clear in his assertion that the city would continue to own the infrastructure. Less clear, however, is what the private company will receive to make the project worth their while. It might be as innocuous as naming rights and advertising space or as obnoxious as paying a toll or extra tax to cross a city bridge or use a city water main.

Alderman have asked for more time to consider this deal and Emanuel gave it to them today, another six days to consider his proposal prior to voting. This approach was different (at least in degree) from former Mayor Daley who was known for ramming projects through the city council in a very short period of time. The parking meter deal received less than a day's review. It was not, however, different in kind. Emanuel made it clear today that his deal will get through whether the aldermen like it or not. He stated that "I believe we'll pass it overwhelmingly. I am not going for a unanimous vote. I am going for passage and we will, in a significant way, pass it."

What seems to concern the council most is the non-profit organization, made up primarily of Chicago businessmen, who would run this trust and manage its projects. Their actions, taken on behalf of the city, would be exempt from oversight by the city's Inspector General and would also not be subject to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests. For all intents and purposes, a shadow agency would be set up to run alongside the city's already existing departments tasked with the building and maintenance of public works. Alderman such as John Arena from the 45th Ward are demanding greater city oversight of the trust.

But Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward) remains unconvinced that this trust is necessary. His is one of the few voices in city government to raise the important question of how this system will significantly differ from the traditional approach of raising municipal bonds to pay for these projects, which could still be built by private contractors.

I find myself in agreement with Munoz and would simply add to his comments the observation that what Emanuel is proposing sounds like the municipal version of a payday loan. Were this trust to go through, as it probably will, interest rates to pay the private company back for its services will likely be astronomical. Far higher than the rates of repayment from a traditional bond sale.

It also comes dangerously close to the outright privatization of city assets, which judging from the incomplete details of this Public-Private Trust must surely be the next step in Il Duce's (a.k.a. "the Rahmfather's) plan. Remember after all that Rahm in his role as President Obama's Chief of Staff referred to Liberals as "fucking retards."

Since many of us voted for you Rahm (for the record I voted for Del Valle), perhaps we are, but you need to remember that we can also vote you out. We can't, however, vote out of power a private company charged with managing city assets. Think about that Chicagoans and call your alderman to voice your concern. Now is the time for action before it's too late.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Too Good For The Hall of Fame?

In the news this week is a report that Guns and Roses lead singer Axl Rose will not be attending the induction ceremony for his band this Saturday at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  He also requested that no one induct him in absentia at the ceremony saying in his letter "no one is authorized nor may anyone be permitted to accept any induction for me or speak on my behalf."

Numerous commentators have already speculated on Axl's motivation for not attending the ceremony.  The most explicable reason for the decision would seem to be his on going feud with his former band mates: Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, and Steven Adler.  Axl Rose has continued to claim sole ownership of the Guns and Roses name and brand after they split in 1996.  He toured with a completely different group of musicians in 2001 as he began a tour associated with the long-awaited and highly disappointing album Chinese Democracy that debuted in 2008.

Another possibility is that Axl is simply doing this as a publicity stunt.  After all, the only other band to decline Hall of Fame membership were the Punk Rock gods The Sex Pistols.  Oi!  And let's face it, Axl's brand isn't as hot in 2012 as it was in 1994.  A lot of rock fans have been born since the mid-1990s.  Many of them more familiar with Green Day than G'NR.

Of course, we could also take Axl's letter at face value and see this as one more volley in his career-long battle with music producers.  He says at one point "For more than a decade and a half we've endured the double standards, the greed of this industry and the ever present seemingly limitless supply of wannabes and unscrupulous, irresponsible media types. Not to imply anything in this particular circumstance, but from my perspective in regard to both the Hall and a reunion, the ball's never been in our court."

As I listen to the song "Get in the Ring" on a mix tape from the 90's, my money is on all three explanations for Axl's recent emergence into the spotlight.

Oh, Axl.  If only you'd stick to singing, but then you wouldn't be the crazy-brilliant MF'er we've come to know and love.  Of course, in order to be crazy-brilliant you have to deliver the goods and recent concerts and albums suggest that now might be a good time to fade into Rock and Roll history rather than staying in the headlines.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dr. Carter's Whiz Kids Meet the Chicago Press

Thanks to jazz music critic Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune and Deana Isaacs at the Chicago Reader, the curtains have been opened to the general public on the deteriorating conditions at Columbia College Chicago.  Once the premier destination for students looking to pursue careers in the applied arts such as film, television, radio, and photography, Columbia has seen increasingly declining enrollments over the last decade.  An article published in Inside Higher Ed notes that enrollment dropped by more than 500 students between 2008 and 2010.  The college's own strategic vision report Focus 2016 also notes this decline with some concern.  This report ultimately served as a catalyst for the Blueprint Prioritization process that began at the college in the fall of 2011. 

Prioritization has as its core goal a necessary task in the life of any college or university--the periodic evaluation of programs to see if they are meeting the needs of students and represent current developments in each field of study.  However, the speed of the process, which is scheduled to be completed in June of this year, as well as the lack of broad student and faculty involvement in prioritization has led to increasing acrimony between the administration and its faculty, students, and staff. 

That acrimony came to a head at the State of the College address given by Columbia President Warrick Carter last week where he told a student to "shut up."  His comments followed a tense exchange between Carter and an African-American student at the college who identified herself as being homeless.  She questioned the president of the college's annual salary of $650,000 in light of the school's financial troubles and the department closures and consolidations necessary due to those fiscal realities.  Carter attempted to answer her question but was interrupted by another member of the audience who he told to "shut up." 

Local journalists are having a field day with Carter's gaffe but it is just one in a long series of tone deaf moves made by the college administration as it attempts to balance college costs and reassess its educational mission.  The largest of these is the secrecy with which the process has been shrouded.  Until recently, only those with access to the college's Human Resources site I.R.I.S. have been able to read the full prioritization reports.  Even students, unless employed by the college, were not able to access this site.

Of course, even if students as well as the general public had been able to read the reports, they would have been hard pressed  deciphering them.  Trying to understand the language of the evaluation process (created by a former college president named Robert C. Dickeson) is like learning Chinese.  It is essentially a bastardized version of the Total Quality Management (TQM) plan favored by corporations since the early 1980s right down to the heavy "business-ese" favored by the pinstriped crowd of the Old Boy Network.  Hey, if it worked for Chrysler's Iaccoca, why not Columbia College?  A business is a business, right?

Rather than admitting that perhaps they chose the wrong method to evaluate the college and its mission, Carter and his administrative staff have instead been circling the wagons.  The latest move is to place a voluntary gag order on Faculty and Staff at the college.  He recently warned Columbia employees to avoid speaking to students as well as media on the Prioritization process until it is complete.  Oops....

Apparently Dr. Carter and his team of whiz kids don't understand the cardinal rule of media.  The more you try to keep a secret, the higher the probability it ends up trending on Google. 

Prioritization recommendations are currently sitting on Carter's desk awaiting his decision, which should be delivered in June or July.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Searching for Ethics at the U of I.

In May of 2009, Chicago Tribune investigators exposed something known as "Category I."  This was a special admissions status that allowed politically connected students who otherwise would not be accepted to the university to attend.

Considering that two Illinois governors are serving federal prison terms, it should come as no surprise that our state higher education system has also been tainted by clout and corruption.  Yet this scandal rocked the Illinois system to its core leading to the resignation of then President B. Joseph White and the resignations of the majority of the Board of Trustees for the university system. 

Christopher Kennedy, the son of  Robert Kennedy and President of Merchandise Mart Properties real estate management firm, was chosen to be the new Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Michael Hogan was selected in May of 2010 to serve as the university system's new president. 

Fast forward to January of this year and the revelation that President Hogan's Chief-of-Staff--Lisa Troyer--sent an anonymous email to faculty at the university attempting to persuade them to adopt a new "streamlined" admissions initiative championed by the system president that would have linked the three campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield.

Faculty at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of the Illinois accused President Hogan of attempting to bully them through his assistant and forced Troyer's resignation.  One hundred and thirty of them also signed a letter in late February stating their lack of confidence in Hogan and asking him to resign. 

Responding to faculty pressure, the university board of trustees called an emergency meeting yesterday in Chicago.  In that meeting they charged Hogan to fix his relationship with the Urbana-Champaign faculty or risk being replaced. 

Because the board meeting was held in the same building that houses my office, I had the opportunity to see President Hogan leaving the meeting yesterday.  He did not look like a happy man.  Deflated was the word that kept coming to mind.  Clearly he was given a good dressing down by his superiors. 

What remains to be seen, however, is what impact if any this dressing down will have.  Ethics tests, new leadership, and changed enrollment policies have all failed to change the clout-driven status quo at the University of Illinois. 

Maybe we should let the students run the school.  Whether it's efficient or not, at least we'd know they are getting what they need.  And if they weren't, they would only have themselves to blame and not some entrenched bureaucracy.

Update: President Michael Hogan resigned on March 22 as head of the University of Illinois system.  He is being replaced for a two year period by Professor Emeritus Robert Easter. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments. 

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990. 

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar. 

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to "economize" and "monetize" their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation. 

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution. 

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am-- A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College's Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am--A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm--C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally. 

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chicago Bureaucrats Take Cabbies for a Ride

On January 18 the Chicago city council passed taxi reform legislation championed by Mayor Emanuel and Alderman Anthony Beale.  Supposedly influenced by a Tribune expose published in December on problem cab drivers who remained behind the wheel, this legislation seeks to modernize the existing cab fleet, improve driver safety, and increase handicap accessible cabs. 
Sounds good right?  It certainly did to this sometime cab rider.  That is until I began to talk to those who drive cabs in the city to earn a meager living.  Here is what I found out. 

For starters, the requirement that cab drivers not spend more than 12 hours behind the wheel represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to drive a cab for a living.  Many if not all drivers use their cabs as a personal vehicle.  During the time they are behind the wheel, not all drivers are looking for fares.  Some are shopping for groceries, picking up children from school, or have parked their vehicle for a few hours to take a break.  This new legislation would not account for such down time and would actually force most drivers to literally remain behind the wheel for 12 hours to recoup the cost of their daily lease and (maybe) make a profit.  Of course, I've yet to figure out how the city plans to enforce this time limit.  Will they put chips in cabbie's brains to track them from the city's 911 center?

Getting newer, more environmentally friendly, and handicap accessible cabs on the road is also a laudable goal.  Ever since Ford and GM stopped production of the Crown Victoria and Caprice full sized sedans, police departments have had to switch to different vehicles for their squad cars.  This has trickled down to the cab business and changed the look of the fleet.  Today Chicago's streets contain a dizzying variety of makes and models.  Some of which are hybrid vehicles. 

Forcing cabbies to lease these new vehicles as part of a "tiered-leasing" model, which includes vehicle age limits, does nothing for drivers.  It simply puts more money in the hands of the companies who lease the cars to would-be drivers.  If the city wants to modernize it's cab fleet, they need to put some cost regulations in place on the cab companies to ensure that drivers aren't getting fleeced when they sign a lease on a newer car.  Otherwise, there will be a strong incentive to lease an older, more rundown vehicle, or operate a "jitney" cab (a private car operating as a cab), which will receive its own category of license under the new legislation.  Mayor Emanuel apparently believes that outsourcing is also good for cabs.  Some Democrat.

Although there are certainly good intentions in the taxi reform bill, the current version will only enrich the cab companies at the expense of their drivers.  I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise given Alderman Beale's ties to taxi industry lobby.  In a recent story from the Chicago Dispatcher, a monthly paper devoted to the interests of cab drivers, George Lutfullah points out the cozy relationship between Beale, the chairman of the city's transportation committee, and Baxter Swilley, the one-time third party candidate for Lt. Gov. of Illinois and a major lobbyist for the taxi business. 

A photo in the paper shows Swilley at a fundraiser for Beale.  Perhaps the Tribune shouldn't pat itself on the back just yet.  Seems to me like Chicago-style politics got this law on the books and not the high minded advocacy of the "World's Greatest Newspaper." 

With Chicago Bureaucrats taking cabbies for a ride, I can't help but wonder who will give the last Chicagoan a ride out of town when they finally get tired of paying the new taxes and fees dreamed up by Emanuel I.  I guess they'll have to walk. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hull House Closes Its Doors For Good

A little over a week ago local news reported that Hull House would be closing its doors for good and transferring its operations on behalf of children and families to other social service providers in Chicago.  If you thought this closure had already happened 48 years ago, you could easily be forgiven.  Most people have long forgotten about this organization, which is better know for its founder (Jane Addams) than the work it continued to do in the Chicago area. 

Although there are many reasons for the demise of this historic organization, a few of the more prominent reasons are easy to pinpoint. 

First, it lacked a visible headquarters after the demolition of the Near West Side neighborhood that anchored the organization throughout much of its history. All that remains of that once glorious period is the Hull House Museum, which is owned not by the Hull House organization but by the institution that destroyed the area--the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Without a visible new home, Hull House quickly entered the public record primarily as a museum. A historical phenomenon rather than an active social service provider. 
Image Courtesy of
Second, the Hull House organization gradually moved away from the solicitation of private donors that had marked much of Jane Addam's tenure as head of the organization and helped it to remain visible among public officials.  Instead it increasingly came to rely on state money, particularly lucrative contracts with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.  This source of funding eroded dramatically as the state's budge woes have grown and the loss of public visibility insured that not enough private funds could be found in time to save the organization from closing. 

And finally, the Hull House organization's ethos was not necessarily in tune with our current cultural climate.  Hull House remained resistant to multi-culturalism and its hyphenated vision of American identity throughout the 1960's.  This led the organization to drift from its role as assimilator of immigrants into the dominant national culture into a different one of social welfare provider to the poor.  In doing so, the organization lost its sense of direction and more than likely struggled to define itself against much larger groups such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities. 

Hull House organization's demise reminds us that nothing lasts forever but adaptability is a key to survival.  One should be careful when adapting, however, to not forget their roots.  A tree without proper anchoring falls in the slightest wind. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Last Man Off or "Don't Give Up the Ship."

It's been nearly a week since the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast near the Tuscan island of Isola del Giglio.  News gathered since the crash indicates that the ship was "saluting" those on shore by pointing its prow towards the island when the crash occurred.  Apparently this was a common practice among captains for the cruise line even though company officials strenuously deny that claim.  So far every attempt has been made to heap blame for the ship's running aground upon the head of its captain--Francesco Schettino.  He is currently still under house arrest and charged with multiple counts of manslaughter as well as criminal negligence.

The death of eleven people in a clearly avoidable accident deserves an in-depth investigation.  Capt. Schettino also deserves to carry his portion of the blame for this crash, but there is more than enough blame to go around and not all of it should rest on the shoulder's of the ship's commander. 

Reports from passenger's indicate a woeful lack of training for the ship's crew who spent most of the time immediately following the crash denying that it happened and trying to entertain the passengers.  This simply reflected the reality that the majority of the ship's personnel were entertainers or service industry professionals rather than seaman of even indifferent skill.  No amount of training could have prepared this overwhelmed staff to abruptly change roles from floating hotel employee to boat crew.  Those with maritime skill were either in the wheelhouse of far below decks tending to the ship's engines. 

I wish I could say that this is uncommon, but it is not.  Years of working as a deckhand on fresh water ferries and tour boats in the United States exposed to me a very similar tale.  The crews I worked with were just lucky that nothing terrible happened to us during our watch. 

Captains were required to have extensive training to meet Coast Guard requirements but the crew had widely varying experience.  We were simply cheap and easily replaceable labor.  I had no prior experience on a commercial vessel when I started working on the water and tried to learn on the job the skills needed to help passengers in the event of an accident or mechanical malfunction.  We did have a few cursory drills.  Particularly to deal with fires or someone falling overboard.  Never was there a discussion, however, of what to do when the boat needed to be evacuated.  Such accidents were viewed, apparently, as unthinkable. 

One asset on the crews I worked with that the Italian cruise ship lacked was that we at least all spoke the same language.  This made it possible for us to communicate in the event of an emergency.  Costa Concordia's crew lacked not only the training but also a lingua franca to figure out what to do in lieu of an established and well drilled evacuation plan. 

Although I happen to agree with the truism the Captain should be the last man off the ship, it is not the main lesson to be learned from this crash.  Instead the Costa Concordia should force consumers to demand a better trained crew.  They are, after all, on a ship and not a floating hotel.  The gods of the sea demand respect and will have it with or without our cooperation.  All we can do is plan to meet any emergency that might arise. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust

On Sunday Barbara's Bookstore quietly closed its UIC location at Roosevelt and Halsted street.  This deprives Chicagoans of yet another physical space to purchase books and meet for literary events.  It also leaves a gaping hole in the blase shopping district that UIC hoped would replace the old Maxwell Street market area they bulldozed under eminent domain for south campus expansion in 2001.

Few details were available this week about why the bookstore closed.  My suspicion is that many of the same forces that led to Borders bankruptcy have been pushing on Barbara's.  They did, after all, close their venerable Oak Park location in July 2010.  All that currently remains of Barbara's business are their smaller boutique shops in Macy's, Northwestern Hospital, O'Hare airport as well as two stores in the suburbs.

Because of the abruptness of its closing, I was not able to be at the UIC Barbara's on the day of its closing.  This is somewhat unfortunate as I seem to have a knack for being at bookstores during their last days.  When the Uptown Borders closed as part of their company "restructuring," I was there to purchase a few books and movies and I stood in line to buy my final book from Borders (John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie) at their flagship store in Ann Arbor, MI not long before the chain permanently closed its doors.

Hopefully this cutback doesn't signal worse days ahead for Barbara's but it does remind us that physical bookstores are increasingly rare. Amazon's business model allows it to offer books (even with shipping) at a much lower price than brick and mortar stores.  Their e-reader, the Kindle, also is rapidly making paper texts objects for collectors rather than everyday readers. 

Lest I sound like a technophobe, let it be known that I own a Kindle and also a smart phone that allows me to read e-texts.  I love the convenience of being able to carry multiple books on a small electronic device and the search feature is a nice touch added to the e-text that makes an index seem rather quaint.  However, I'm concerned that losing physical bookstores simply adds to the "echo chamber effect" that seems to dominate our culture. 

Once upon a time you could wander to the front table of a bookstore like Barbara's.  There you could see new releases as well as books that other readers recommended (usually store employees or frequent customers).  Often these books were on subjects I would not have searched for on my own.  They helped broaden my interests and add to my store of knowledge.  I felt like the bookstore's front table was challenging me to be less insular and discover what the next big thing in my life might be. 

In its place, I now have google searches and the Amazon website's helpful recommendations following each book I buy.  These searches simply reconfirm my already existing beliefs and tastes.  No challenges here.  No serendipity.  Everything is planned and shows up as described and on time.  Where's the fun in the that? 

Oh for a pile of musty books in a beat up storefront where you wander without looking for anything in particular and suddenly end up finding the narrative that changes everything.  I wonder if the next generation will know or even care about these quaint spaces we once called bookstores. Perhaps the iPhone will create an musty bookstore app.   If they do, all I ask is that they don't forget the cranky old owner with his cat and the faint smell of stale pipe tobacco.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

IL Duce Del Chicago

Karl Marx once remarked that "history repeats itself.  The first time as tragedy the second as farce."  Whether this observation can be applied to Chicago's new Mayor remains to be seen but one thing is clear--Rahm Emanuel is working really hard to outdo "The Boss" (a.k.a. Richard J. Daley) and his son Richard M. Daley. 

His latest move was the press conference this week where he told reporters that he "misspoke" when he said that changes to protest rules and regulations would be limited to the period leading up to and during the G8 and NATO summits this May.  Now, it appears, the higher fines and legal limits to how, when, and where citizens may protest are permanent.

The maximum fine for "resisting or obstructing a police officer" will rise to $1,000 and the minimum fine is now $200.  Demonstrations are limited to two hours max, public parks and beaches are closed until 6am, noise ordinances are extended to prohibit amplification before 8am and after 10pm, and EVERY piece of sound equipment (including bullhorns) would need to be registered with the city A WEEK IN ADVANCE. 

Of these changes, the only one that makes sense is the noise ordinance regulation but that is primarily as a matter of courtesy to the residents of the neighborhoods adjoining the protest sites.  The rest are part of a shameless clamp down on public dissent in Chicago that is getting even worse now than it was under Richard II. 

What exactly is Emanuel trying to prove?  He claims that his actions are done in the name of public safety and should have no adverse impact on protester's free speech rights.  Emanuel also argues that protecting the conference sites are essential to promoting Chicago as a destination for future meetings of this kind. 

The first of these claims is patently ridiculous as Emanuel must know that protest movements are often ad hoc in nature and can never meet the pre-registration requirements he has set up.  And good luck convincing any of the members of these groups to limit their protest to specific sites and times.  Their very existence as a group consequently becomes a violation of the law. 

As for the second, businesses are aghast at the prospect of lost revenue that the G8 and NATO summits will cause to Chicago's economy.  Security for these events will make it nearly impossible to navigate the city's downtown and where security cordons will be established and how they will work remains a mystery.  This has led to such major changes as Columbia College starting a week earlier to get its students, faculty, and staff out of town before the shit hits the fan so to speak. 

Clearly the only reason for this display of power is its display.  Emanuel wants to show us that he's the boss.  Well sir, I can tell you that we are all impressed.  VIVA IL DUCE!!!!