Endorsing Brendan Reilly, or Why I Won’t Vote for Burt Natarus

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(Photo: “I don’t cause commotions. I am one.” — Natarus as Wicked’s Elphaba. Credit: The Haymarket Group, as digitized by swanksalot [thanks, Seth!].)

Because I think he’s a liar. Probably my top reason why I will not vote for Chicago’s incumbent 42nd Ward alderman, Burt Natarus, in the municipal election on February 27.

Having presided over the Ward at the heart of downtown Chicago for more than three decades, through the years much has been made of Natarus’ cozy financial relationship with construction development interests. A recent Chicago Tribune article gets right to the point on the matter: Natarus gets most of his campaign money from the development industry, with which he’s worked closely to help rebuild and revitalize the heart of Hogtown since first elected to the City Council in 1971.

But, however pivotal–and admirable–a role played by Natarus in the ongoing rebirth of downtown Chicago, the times they are a’changing. This year, for the first time in recent memory, the 73-year-old alderman will face two credible challengers for his job. And according to the Tribune, these two aldermanic pretenders accuse Natarus of governing Chicago’s 42nd Ward primarily for the benefit of the development industry rather than for 42nd Ward residents.

I concur.

Regular readers know of the downtown noise war into which I waded beginning in fall 2005. The original battle was about the bucket boys playing beneath residential windows at all times of day (and night). To his credit, Natarus helped his constituents win that battle and rein in the scofflaw drummer-beggars.

However, last year when the noise scofflaws turned out to be the developers of several downtown construction sites, Natarus was…well I’d like to be gracious and say less helpful, but the more appropriate word is useless. Local law bars almost all construction noise from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.. It’s a law frequently broken in the 42nd Ward, as my partner, Devyn, and I found out the hard way.

We both live downtown. I’m in River North. Devyn’s in the Loop. Our residential buildings both overlook major construction sites–including, for Devyn, the infamous Block 37. And unfortunately, for most of last year we and our neighbors were by turns pounded out of bed at the crack of dawn or kept awake until midnight (and beyond) by a scofflaw cacophony of jackhammers, pile drivers, earth movers, you name it. We heard it.

And remembering how helpful he was to residents in the bucket-boys battle, Devyn and I and our neighbors approached 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus and asked him to intervene. Eventually begged. Multiple times.

We kept records of the illegal construction activity and reported each incident to 911 and/or 311 (as we had variously been instructed to do by the Ward office). We made dozens of calls, sent dozens of emails, to the Ward office throughout the summer, fall, and early winter of 2006.

For our troubles, we received a few terse, eventually annoyed email responses from Natarus’ staff saying they’d “look into” the issue, and, once, a photocopy of a letter sent to a local developer asking him to obey the law. But mostly we received no response at all.

Having had the opportunity to work closely with mayoral officials in the past couple of years, I wondered if the response would be any different from the mayor’s office.

Oh boy, was it.

Fed up with the run-around from Natarus, in December I sent a complaint letter to the Mayor’s correspondence unit, detailing both the scofflaw construction activity and the seeming impotence of Natarus to do anything about it. Here’s what happened over the course of the next four weeks, thanks to that one letter:

-The Department of Buildings inspected the scofflaw sites, warned them, and made the telephone numbers of the on-site management trailers available to residents.

-The Department of Environment, on the authority of Commissioner Sadhu Johnston, officially warned each developer, monitored the construction sites in question every morning for a week, and cited them more than once.

-The DoE also requested to broker a meeting between the developers and us and our neigbors.

-Natarus called Devyn personally, with one of the scofflaw developers on the line, and apologized.

Oh yeah. And the scofflaw noise almost instantly stopped–which shows you who really wears the pants in this city (thanks, Richie).

This is the result I should have gotten from my alderman. So, as you can imagine, I want a new one. But who?

Not Mike Liebert. The former cop and club-meister is an affable guy. I ran into him a few weeks back in the lobby here at Marina City and we had a long talk about the needs of the Ward. I agreed with him that I didn’t believe Natarus was truly governing for the people who elected him anymore.

But I didn’t agree that our biggest issue was parking. As Liebert explained to me, the way out of downtown congestion woes in this, the densest, most walkable, most transit-blessed neighborhood in the 2,400 miles between New York City and San Francisco, is parking. More parking. Structure parking. Lot parking. In-building parking.

Oh my. Running on a platform seeking to make downtown Chicago more friendly for cars is just so…L.A…Robert Moses…1950s (take your pick). We’re not Indianapolis, thank you very much. The capital of the American Midwest deserves a better congestion strategy than asphalting it over. More pause-inducing for me, though, is the fact that, as I write this, a mere 19 days before the election, Liebert’s campaign website still says “coming soon”.

Given the above-described ilk of the incumbent and challenger number one, I wasn’t really expecting much from Natarus’ other opponent, Brendan Reilly, when I received his campaign literature in the mail this week. But upon reading through it, and browsing his very much up-and-running campaign website, I got the feeling this was a man better suited to the aforementioned New York, or San Francisco, or some such coastal city whose citizenry expects much, much more from its local politicians than is usually the case here on the shores of Lake Mich.

A public-affairs executive who occasionally has campaigned on behalf of local democrats, Reilly’s platform includes improvements in the usual apple-pie issues of taxes, crime, and education. He also addresses traffic congestion, but, happily, in terms of capacity management and increased regulation of restaurant valet services, rather than using steamrollers and macadam spreaders to invite in even more congestion.

But Reilly’s main plank? Establishing transparent, public oversight for 42nd Ward development decisions and refusing to accept political contributions from the development industry. If there were ever any doubt about the biggest problem for residents in downtown Chicago, Reilly’s campaign makes it absolutely clear: it’s Burt Natarus’ decision to run the Ward for the people who build here instead of the people who live here.

I know I for one am ready to stop being treated like an afterthought by my own alderman.

Do I believe Reilly will stand behind his promises? Does anyone really believe anything our elected leaders say these days? Of course Reilly promises change on the issues of real import to 42nd Ward residents: severe overdevelopment imposed with little public oversight; a deaf ear from the Ward office; and taking your life in your hands every time you cross the over-congested street. What impresses me more is that, of all three candidates, only Reilly seems to know what those issues actually are. Now why is that?

Mr. Natarus, you’ve sorely lost your way. You should be beholden to the residents of this Ward, not to the developers who fill your war chest. And Mr. Liebert, if you can’t even get a website up and running (and honestly, most 12-year-olds can get that accomplished these days), how do you expect me to trust that you can manage the affairs of downtown Chicago? And really, you both should know better what’s on the minds of downtown residents.

But you don’t, and that’s why I’m voting for Brendan Reilly.

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