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Lightfoot defends six-figure job she gave alderman who lost re-election bid

The mayor says she won’t allow Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th), who defeated John Arena, to ‘dictate to me how or when or under what circumstances somebody gets hired.’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot defends her decision to reward defeated Ald. John Arena (45th).
Mayor Lori Lightfoot defends her decision to reward defeated Ald. John Arena (45th), who supported her, with a six-figure job in the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
Fran S:pielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday defiantly defended her decision to reward ousted Ald. John Arena (45th) with a $129,996-a-year job in the Department of Planning and Development over strenuous objections from the rookie alderman who defeated Arena.

Ald. Jim Gardiner accused Lightfoot of ignoring her own citywide hiring freeze and exercising the “politics as usual” she campaigned against by continuing the time-honored tradition of Chicago mayors hiring defeated aldermen.

Lightfoot was unmoved. In fact, she was downright offended.

“With due respect to the freshman, I make my decisions based upon the merits. ... I’m not gonna have somebody who defeated somebody in an election dictate to me how or when or under what circumstances somebody gets hired,” said Lightfoot — who, in the mayoral runoff, captured 81.5 percent of the vote in the 45th Ward with Arena’s help.

Gardiner “vented” in a meeting, the mayor said, but “I obviously decided to go in a different direction. If we start a precedent of somebody who’s a winner basically banning somebody from employment, where does it end? What Gardiner should focus on is what matters to his ward. He doesn’t have a say over my hiring decisions.”

Lightfoot was asked how her decision to hire Arena differs from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to give high-level city jobs to defeated former aldermen Mary O’Connor (41st) and John Pope (10th).

“I don’t spend my time comparing myself to other mayors. ... I’m calling balls and strikes based upon the information that I have in front of me and what our specific needs are,” the mayor said.

“I think John Arena is a smart, able person who brings a wealth of experience that will, I think, aid us and the new commissioner of planning — or otherwise, he wouldn’t be there.”

Gardiner countered that Lightfoot’s decision to hire Arena smacks of “politics as usual.”

“I expected her to live up to her word. ... This goes against what she campaigned on. ... This was a rude awakening,” Gardiner said.

“Residents of the 45th Ward are very disappointed in that decision, being that there is a hiring freeze. It sheds a bright light on patronage hiring. ... I warned her of the ramifications. But she obviously did not pay heed to that. She [simply] said, ‘I heard you.’”

Gardiner argued Arena has no business working as a high-ranking city planner when he accepted an “exorbitant” $48,000 in campaign contributions over the years from Chicago developers.

That includes $18,000 from Lake Forest businessman Charles Cui, who faces federal bribery charges for hiring indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) to handle property tax appeals. In exchange, Burke helped Cui with a sign for a new Binny’s Beverage Depot.

“I just don’ t know if that would fog his ability to be non-biased,” Gardiner said.

Arena did not return repeated phone calls.

He has been at the center of controversy in recent years for backing a hotly contested Jefferson Park apartment development that included affordable housing.

The project at 5150 N. Northwest Highway won state tax credits after Arena’s defeat.

In late April, plans to plug a giant gap in the Six Corners shopping district with a 248-unit residence for senior citizens hit a snag in a parting shot at Arena.

As the Zoning Committee opened debate on the $120 million project, now-former Ald. Marge Laurino (39th) asked for a roll call to determine whether a quorum was present.

It was a rare move for an alderman on a project not in her ward.

“I don’t feel like there has been enough discussion on this issue,” Laurino said, apparently doing Gardiner a favor.

Last week, Gardiner declared his opposition to the latest version of the Six Corners development, which includes 10 affordable housing units on site.

Lightfoot has already signed an executive order stripping aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

She has promised to do the same for aldermanic prerogative over zoning. But, that will require a City Council vote that is, by no means, a sure thing.

On Tuesday, the mayor was asked whether she will allow Gardiner to use aldermanic prerogative to block the Six Corners project.

She would only say: “The alderman overstates his ability.”