Long to-do list looms for new Mayor Johnson

From assembling a staff and cabinet to speeding up police hiring and devising a plan to stop the usual summer surge of violent crime, the new mayor has his work cut out for him. No wonder so many would-be contenders took a pass.

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Former Mayor Anton Cermak’s desk sits in the fifth-floor mayor’s office in 2011. The new mayor will likely find it piled with work.

Former Mayor Anton Cermak’s desk, shown in the fifth-floor mayor’s office in 2011. The new mayor will likely find it piled with work.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

After an exhausting mayoral campaign and a five-week sprint to the runoff finish, Chicago’s mayor-elect would probably like to catch up on sleep and take a long vacation.

But the challenges confronting Brandon Johnson, who will soon become the city’s 57th mayor, are so daunting, a long weekend might have to suffice.

From assembling a personal staff and cabinet and choosing a new police superintendent from three finalists chosen by a civilian oversight agency to speeding up police hiring and devising a plan to stop the traditional summer surge of violent crime, the new mayor has his work cut out for him.

Analysis bug

Analysis

No wonder so many blue-chip candidates took a pass.

Following is a rundown of the sea of alligators ready to bite the new mayor and the deeply divided city he leads:

CPD superintendent

If one appointment can make or break a Chicago mayor, this is it. Lori Lightfoot’s decision to go around the Police Board she once led to choose retired Dallas police chief David Brown and stand by him for three years was one of her biggest failures.

An insider is clearly needed to develop the coherent crime-fighting strategy Brown lacked, reverse a mass exodus of officers and restore morale that’s at rock-bottom among those who remain on the streets. But some of the best and brightest candidates ran for the hills under Brown, and would have to be lured back. The Interim Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability has until mid-July to forward the names of three finalists to the new mayor.

On Memorial Day weekend last year, Chicago police and SWAT officers investigate after an alleged gunman barricaded himself in a building after one man was killed and three other people were wounded in a shooting in West Humboldt Park. The incident occurred May 29, 2022, in the 4400 block of West Walton Street.

On Memorial Day weekend last year, Chicago police and SWAT officers investigate after an alleged gunman barricaded himself in a building after one man was killed and three other people were wounded in a shooting in West Humboldt Park. The incident occurred May 29, 2022, in the 4400 block of West Walton Street.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Summer violence

Two weeks after the new mayor is sworn in, Memorial Day weekend arrives. Over the years, it typically has been among the most violent weekends in Chicago and the start of the traditional summer surge of bloodshed.

Brown’s abrupt decision to high-tail it back to Dallas just days after Lightfoot’s third-place finish left the Chicago Police Department in a tough spot. His hand-picked first deputy, now Acting Supt. Eric Carter, will try to keep Chicago safe over the holiday weekend.

Lightfoot condemned the “out of control” violence that turned Brown’s first Memorial Day weekend into a “bloodbath” and held her new superintendent personally responsible. Under pressure to reduce police overtime, Brown put hundreds fewer moonlight officers on the street than the 1,200 additional officers who usually work long summer holiday weekends. It showed — Lightfoot called Brown’s debut performance a “fail.”

Police hiring, deployment

With 1,700 police vacancies, it is more important than ever that CPD finally put the officers it does have in neighborhoods where crime is highest. Two years ago, the University of Chicago Crime Lab called for reassigning veteran and rookie officers immediately, based on a formula it created that includes calls for service, total violent crime in an area, population size and attrition of retiring officers.

Lightfoot and Brown chose a slower approach, a path of the least political resistance. High-crime districts got more manpower, but only as rookies graduated from the academy and completed their 18-month probation.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who skipped the mayor’s race to stay with the anti-violence nonprofit he founded, has argued CPD needs “to deploy police where and when crime is happening — instead of where and when they choose to work.”

Consent decree

In the independent monitor’s last report, the city was in full compliance with only 3% of its many requirements. The pace of reform has been so painfully slow, Lightfoot asked for and received three more years to comply with massive changes, that, she claimed, would cost $50 million. The city must pick up the pace. Solving crimes depends on restoring shattered trust between citizens and police. The new mayor could start by re-hiring Robert Boik, who was fired as head of the Office of Constitutional Policing for sending an email criticizing Brown’s decision to move 46 officers under Boik’s supervision to the Bureau of Patrol as part of a larger reorganization.

Chicago Public Schools

At its final meeting before the runoff, the Chicago Board of Education warned of a looming, $628 million deficit in a school system that has hemorrhaged students for more than a decade. Federal stimulus funds propping up CPS will dry up in just two years.

The contract with the Chicago Teachers Union expires next summer. Negotiations on what will almost certainly be the last contract hammered out by a mayoral-appointed board are expected to begin later this year. A moratorium on school closings expires in 2025. The school board has urged the new mayor to lobby the Illinois General Assembly for pension relief and other structural changes to plug a budget gap that will grow to $750 million in the coming years.

Chicago Teachers Union members rally on Sept. 14, 2019.

Chicago Teachers Union members at a rally in September 2019.

Sun-Times file

City Council

After decades as a rubber stamp, the City Council has decided not to wait until the new mayor and Council are sworn in this May to declare its independence. Led by three of Lightfoot’s closest allies, the Council approved a reorganization — with a new line-up of committees and chairs — that increases the number of committees from 19 to 28.

The multimillion-dollar expansion — without a clearly-identified funding source — must be ratified by the new Council and still could be undone after the new mayor weighs in, which likely will happen. The new mayor needs an empowered, independent and energized Council to be an equal partner in solving Chicago’s enormous challenges. But any mayor also needs to know that the chairs of the most pivotal committees will support the new administration’s agenda, not try to sabotage or undermine it.

Chicago Transit Authority

Total ridership on CTA buses and trains rose 24% last year, but is still just half what it was before the pandemic. The number of employees still working from home is not the only culprit. Employee shortages, service reliability and complaints about security, maintenance and rider behavior also are keeping passengers away. RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard has sounded the alarm about a mass transit “funding cliff” that will leave the CTA, Metra and Pace $730 million short of the operating funds they need by 2025, when federal stimulus funds run out. Fare hikes alone can’t dig the system out of the hole, Dillard has said.

City pension crisis

Lightfoot has made this task easier by finally securing the downtown casino that eluded her predecessors for decades and pre-paying $242 million in future pension debt to avoid saddling Chicago taxpayers with compounded interest. That averted the need for the four city employee pension funds to sell assets to cover liabilities and triggered a series of bond rating upgrades that should reduce city borrowing costs.

But even if Bally’s gets the go-ahead to build a $1.7 billion permanent casino complex in River West and retrofit Medinah Temple in River North to accommodate a temporary gaming palace, casino gambling, at best, will only generate $200 million in annual revenues to shore up police and fire pensions. And that won’t happen for years. The city’s total pension liability stands at $33.6 billion — $700 million higher than it was just four years ago.

The firefighters pension fund remains the worst off of the four, with assets to cover just 20.9% of its liabilities. That’s followed by the Municipal Employees Pension Fund (23.4%), Police (23.5%) and Laborers (45.9%). Aside from the casino, Lightfoot made virtually no long-term progress on pensions. In fact, the pension crisis got infinitely worse when Gov. J.B.Pritzker ignored Lightfoot’s plea to veto a bill boosting pensions for thousands of Chicago firefighters.

Homelessness and affordable housing

The recent furor over homeless persons living at O’Hare Airport underscores the urgency of this issue. So do the encampments that have popped up all over the city, as well as the estimated 12,000 CPS students who are homeless. Chicago needs to do more to confront its homeless crisis, even after receiving a $60 million federal grant — the largest single grant in a $315 million pot of money doled out in February by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Lightfoot broke her campaign promise to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales over $1 million to create a dedicated funding source to combat homelessness and create affordable housing. She feared it would be “viewed as a property tax increase.” Now, that Chicago has a new mayor, pressure from the so-called “Bring Chicago Home Coalition” will only intensify.

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road in February 2020.

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road in February 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

ComEd franchise agreement

Before Chicago voters sealed her fate as a one-term mayor, Lightfoot negotiated a 15-year franchise agreement with Commonwealth Edison and pushed for a quick vote. The City Council short-circuited the mayor’s plan, punting the issue to her successor.

The question now is whether the new mayor will start from scratch, seriously considering a city takeover that Lightfoot’s consultants had branded cost-prohibitive. Or, the agreement Lightfoot negotiated could simply be tweaked to compensate consumers for the $1.3 million bribery scandal that culminated in the indictment of former state House Speaker Michael Madigan and is showcased by the ongoing federal corruptions scandal of the so-called “ComEd Four.”

Contracts for firefighters, police

Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, talked about eliminating the minimum staffing requirement that mandates five employees on every piece of fire apparatus. They also talked about eliminating costly perks in the firefighters contract and about reconciling the number of firehouses with the fact that the Chicago Fire Department now spends two-thirds of its time responding to medical emergencies.

Neither one of them ultimately made those cuts. Lightfoot was so determined to avoid taking the political heat, she negotiated a short-term contract that cost taxpayers $95 million in back pay in exchange for increased health care contributions. That short-term contract expired on June 30, 2021.

The new mayor needs to negotiate a long-term contract with Chicago firefighters that finally confronts the larger issues that have saddled taxpayers with additional costs. Jim Tracy, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, has argued that Chicago desperately needs 20 more ambulances for a total fleet of 100. The eight-year police contract that Lightfoot negotiated expires on June 30, 2025. But, it did not include long-term accountability issues that still need to be negotiated or go to arbitration.

General Iron lawsuit

Any day or week now, a city administrative judge will decide whether or not a long-contested car-shredding operation on the Southeast Side can open after being blocked by Lightfoot’s administration almost a year ago.

Weeks of hearings over the permit denial for the relocated and rebuilt General Iron wrapped up in late January.

City lawyers have defended the decision made in February 2022, saying Lightfoot-appointed Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady acted within her authority to prevent the shredding facility, renamed Southside Recycling, from opening on East 116th Street along the Calumet River.

Amid community protests, Arwady cited public health concerns around adding an additional polluter to the area. Moving a polluting business with a history of neighbor complaints from mostly white, affluent Lincoln Park to a Latino community surrounded by Black neighborhoods raised concerns about environmental racism and drew federal investigators who concluded that the city’s practices were discriminatory.

The city has been negotiating with federal officials over a possible agreement. The new mayor needs to wrap it up. The still-pending case underscores the need for the new mayor to move quickly to resurrect a full-blown city Department of Environment abolished by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chicago’s dismal, single-digit recycling rate depends on it.

Chicago Housing Authority

There appears to be no way of undoing the controversial zoning change Lightfoot muscled through the City Council allowing the Chicago Fire soccer club to build an $80 million training center on 23.3 acres of Near West Side land formerly occupied by the CHA’s ABLA Homes.

Lightfoot and Fire owner Joe Mansueto pretty much made sure of that last month by signing the ground lease for the 53,000-square-foot facility. But the controversy underscores the widespread discontent with the pace at which the CHA has built replacement housing to honor the commitments made long ago in the Plan for Transformation finalized when CHA high-rises were demolished.

With scores of vacant units, pressure is certain to intensify to deliver on its housing commitments and, perhaps, use those vacant units to house asylum-seekers and victims of domestic violence.

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