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Public left out of Emanuel’s budget

A Sun-Times headline from last August may be the crux of the matter:  “Rahm hears boos at budget chat.”

Rahm will hear no boos this year.

With virtually no notice from the media, Mayor Emanuel has sharply reduced public participation in the city’s budget process and completely eliminated public information about his budget proposal.

For over 30 years, the city has held open public hearings on the mayor’s proposed budget.  Emanuel has ended that, substituting closed sessions with specially-selected groups.

And while Mayor Daley always released his draft budget in August, Emanuel has released nothing – not even the standard update on expenses and revenues for the second quarter of the year.

On Wednesday, a delegation representing dozens of community and labor groups delivered an open letter to Emanuel calling on him to “release a proposed budget immediately and schedule public town hall meetings to ensure that our communities are involved in all steps of [the budgeting] process.”

“The Mayor’s shift away from community participation is not only a dramatic break with precedent, but also directly contradicts his campaign promise to create ‘the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen,'” said Elizabeth Parisian of Stand Up Chicago, one of the groups signing the letter.

“I didn’t think anybody could be more closed-door than Daley, but lo and behold, Rahm’s done it,” said Jerry Morrison of SEIU Local 1.  He believes Chicago is now “the only large city in America that has no public process for its budget.”

“Rahm is good on transparency in terms of putting things on the internet,” commented Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman now at UIC.  “He’s not so good on community participation and democracy.”


Mayor Harold Washington initiated town hall budget meetings with the 1984 city budget.  “It was very, very important to him,” recalls Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary and author of “Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man,” who’s now at Columbia College.  “He filled his administration with people who had spent many years working on issues from the outside, banging on the doors of City Hall, and he said, let’s do it right.

“It was important to him that when budgets were being decided, it wasn’t just an inside deal with a few people at the table but was genuinely informed by what people in the neighborhoods said they needed,” Miller said.  “And the best way to get that was with open town hall meetings where anybody could ask a question or raise an objection or take issue with any of the proposals.”

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Remembering Harold

The dispirited local political scene of today presents a sharp contrast to the mayoralty of Harold Washington, a time of great political fervor, with thousands of citizens across the city engaged in grassroots activity and debate and working together across race and class lines.

His historic mayoralty had its roots in popular movements for civil rights, peace, civil liberties and open government. His constant refrain was that he was merely “an instrument of the movement,” but it turns out that his leadership may have been a crucial element of that movement.

Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago 25 years ago this April and served until his death 20 years ago November 27, and the two dates will bracket a series of public events commemorating his legacy, sponsored by former staff members, colleagues, friends and supporters.

The Harold Washington Commemorative Year will kick off at a press conference Thursday, November 1, 5 p.m. in the lower level reception hall of the Harold Washington Library, celebrating the release of “Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years,” by photographers Antonio Dickey and Mark PoKempner with text by Salim Muwakkil.

On November 25, clergy representing the range of Chicago’s spiritual traditions — including Rev. Jesse Jackson — will lead an interfaith memorial service at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington.

The 25th anniversary of his election will be marked April 12 with a symposium analyzing Washington’s legacy and its application to the present and future.

Activities are planned throughout the six-month period — including a staged musical reading of noted AACM saxophonist and composer Edward Wilkerson’s opera, “Harold in Chicago.”

“We want to engage youth and talk to people who weren’t around,” said Mary Gerace of the Harold Washington Commemorative Year. “It won’t be a nostalgia fest — though we’ll share a lot of great Harold stories. But there are important lessons for the present and the future, and we need to hear them.”

For more: Mary Gerace, Harold Washington Commemorative Year, 708-345-8045,

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