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Vanquished alderman accused of using six-figure planning job to play politics

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) says John Arena showed up at a community meeting on a Six Corners development, distributed literature for his opponent for ward committeeman, handed out hell-raising scripts to those in attendance and gave Gardiner the finger.

Vanquished ex-Ald. John Arena (45th), far left, stands outside a community meeting Tuesday on a Six Corners development and, according to those in attendance, gathers signatures for Ellen Hill, who is running against current Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) for Democratic ward committeeman.
Provided photo

Vanquished former Ald. John Arena (45th) was accused Friday of using his $129,996-a-year job in the city’s Department of Planning and Development as a platform to continue fighting the man who beat him.

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) said Arena showed up at a community meeting this week on the proposed $200 million development on the old Sears site at Six Corners and distributed literature and gathered signatures for Ellen Hill, who is running against Gardiner for Democratic committeeman.

According to Gardiner and other community leaders who contacted the Sun-Times, Arena was also distributing scripted comments to help area residents hold Gardiner’s feet to the fire on the issue of affordable housing.

Gardiner accused Arena of adding insult to injury by going inside the meeting, sitting in one of the front rows and giving him the finger.

Arena could not be reached for comment but denied the allegations through a city spokesman.

What makes the behavior so offensive, Gardiner said, is the fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot rewarded Arena with a $129,996-a-year job in a Department of Planning and Development that is supposed to be apolitical and Arena chose to play politics at a community meeting about a planning issue.

“How am I supposed to work with a department whose deputy commissioner is actively working against me with current developments going on in the ward?” Gardiner said Friday.

“This is what — not only myself, but many of my colleagues — had forseen. That he was gonna continue to be manipulative and trying to be problematic in the very ward that I am now representing and he used to. . . . He was there in the crowd giving me the finger. It’s par for the course for the previous alderman.”

Gardiner stopped short of saying Lightfoot should demand Arena’s resignation for mixing politics with planning. The alderman simply said the issue “needs to be addressed.”

“How can I, in good faith, work with that department, knowing that there’s an individual that is sitting as a deputy commissioner — a special adviser to the commissioner — and actively working against me?” he said.

Planning and Development spokesman Peter Strazzabosco issued a brief statement that said, “The allegations, which the former alderman denies, are unacceptable for a professional civil servant. The Department of Planning and Development has addressed this matter internally.”

Gardiner wasn’t the only one incensed by Arena’s behavior. So was area resident Jacquelyn Hathaway, who attended Tuesday’s community meeting and saw Arena.

“Everything seemed rather scripted and dramatic as if it were rehearsed. I also noticed that throughout the entire meeting John Arena and his son Joe Arena were sitting in the front rows giving Alderman Gardiner the finger,” Hathaway wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Three months ago, Lightfoot called Arena a “smart, able person who brings a wealth of experience that will aid us and the new commissioner of planning.”

The mayor at that time defiantly defended her decision to hire Arena over Gardiner’s strenuous objections.

”With due respect to the freshman, I make my decisions based upon the merit. 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.