Alderman Walter Burnett likens his job to that of a priest

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Ald. Walter Burnett in City Council. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times file photo

It’s hard to imagine anyone comparing Chicago aldermen to priests, considering the steady drumbeat of corruption that has sent 31 present and former aldermen to prison since the 1970’s.

But, that’s what Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) did this week during a candid discussion with students in the City Council chambers.

Despite the $73,280-a-year expense allowance and an annual salary of $114,913 for those who accept annual cost-of-living adjustments, Burnett candidly complained to the students about the abuse he has to take and the bile he has to swallow while dealing with angry constituents.

“I went to a block party Saturday [with] every next person I talked to asking me for something, complaining about something. You have to have a thick skull to deal with that,” Burnett said, apparently intending to say skin–not skull.

“Sometimes, they even accuse you of not doing something when they don’t know what you did. Dealing with the public, you can’t just respond like you normally would [by saying], `Who you talking to? You lying.’ You can’t say all of that. You have to be like, `Okay, ma’am. We’ll look into it,’ or, `That’s not true. But, let me show you what I did do. Give me another opportunity to fix it for you.’ ”

Burnett, chairman of the City Council’s Special Events Committee, cautioned students who might be considering a run for elected office that they need “a lot of tolerance and a lot of patience” to succeed.

“Sometimes, it’s hard. People may be mad because they’ve been trying to get something done and they couldn’t do it and they’ve been calling the wrong places and when they get you on the phone, they’re taking it all out on you. You don’t even know what they’re talking about and they’re just beating you up,” Burnett said.

“You can’t just have a natural response and go back off on `em. You have to be patient and let `em vent, then try to deal with the issue and see what the real problem is and try to resolve it. You almost have to be a priest to be in public service.”

Burnett told the students that most of the people who call his office are seeking services they could easily access themselves.

“People just don’t do it. They want someone to service them. They could just call the department, but some folks don’t know how to get around or they don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy,” he said.

What we do is cut out the bureaucracy. I can get it done in a half-hour. By yourself, it might take several hours or several days. Employees are busy doing something else and may not take your issue as a priority

Burnett is a political protege of former County Board President George Dunne and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

The alderman survived a childhood in Cabrini-Green and 2 years in prison for armed robbery to become the first convicted felon ever elected to the City Council. He was pardoned in 1998.

Last year, Burnett resigned as chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus amid dissension in the ranks fueled by his demand to set aside 20 percent of the city’s tax-increment financing funds for affordable housing.

Top mayoral aides had argued that the 20 percent set-aside – roughly $100 million in 2010 – would tie the city’s hands when it comes to using TIF dollars to build schools, libraries, police and fire stations and offering subsidies to lure business development.

Burnett’s Black Caucus colleagues made similar arguments.

They also feared that the “Sweet Home Chicago” mandate to build affordable housing could drive the middle class out of their wards, just as the CHA’s Plan for Transformation has led to increased crime.

Several African-American aldermen were livid that Burnett refused to drop the issue until after the 2011 aldermanic election. Some found their ward offices picketed by affordable housing advocates.

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