CN Sep 21 2017

 

Remember when the Department of Justice came to Chicago with a list of “requirements” for reform of the Chicago Police Department? That was just days before Donald Trump upended the federal government and announced that the feds would no longer seek a consent decree to push those reforms through.

On Chicago Newsroom  a few weeks ago, Police Board Chair Lori Lightfoot told us that only about a third of the recommendations a different task force – the one she chaired and whose members were chosen by the mayor, and which had reached many of the same conclusions a few months earlier – had been implemented.

The not-for profit Chicago Reporter decided to build its own progress tracker for the DOJ report. It concluded that the DOJ had 99 “requirements,” and that, six months after its release, only 6 of the 99 could reasonably be considered completed. Reporter Jonah Newman is leading the tracking project.

“Some of these are going to take a long time to really implement,” he allows. “Some of them require the cooperation of the Police Union. Some of them require City Council. Some of them require other city agencies, so I think it’s important to not be too critical, to understand that some of these are going to take a long time.”

And Newman reports, some of the next category, “partially implemented,” include some very thorny issues that can’t be considered implemented just because someone sent a memo. “Changing the use of force policy to clarify and reinforce the idea that the sanctity of life is of utmost importance for example. Those are really important things, and again, important things to see implemented into CPD policy. At that point we will mark that on here as implemented. The question then becomes – well, does that change what actually happens for police officers in the field, and that’s going to take a lot longer to really see.”

Chicago just missed having the Justice Department run the process by a few weeks, a fact that community organizers lament and some police supporters celebrate. But, Newman says, there’s no doubt that the Trump administration has lengthened the process considerably. “If you talk to police reform advocates and people who have done this in other cities,” he explains, “they will say that federal oversight is crucial. To make sure that there is actually a timeline for how and when these things are supposed to happen, that there’s money put behind them, because without money a lot of these things are going to go by the wayside…So in other cities where the Justice Department has come in and done these investigations, by now we would be well on our way if not already have a signed consent decree between the City and the Justice Department.”

Many critics have noted that the police unions stand united against many of the enumerated reforms, and some specific ‘requirements” cannot be implemented without modifications to the police labor contracts. Key among these issues is the process for engaging with police officers who’ve been involved with a shooting or other controversial action.

“They are not required to talk to investigators from (what’s now) COPA until 24 hours after the shooting,” says Newman, “and they are allowed, and not just in shootings but in all misconduct cases to, if there’s video, to view the video before making a statement. Or if they have made a statement before viewing the video to view the video and revise their statement afterwards.”

But Newman cautions against casting the FOP and other unions as the sole reason for delaying reform. “I do think that some of the more difficult recommendations from the Justice Department are not contingent on the FOP, and are some of the ones that are going to be most difficult to track…And some of that is because the City hasn’t released information or hasn’t been fully transparent about what they may or may not be doing. But part of it is things that we, it’s just going to take a long time and a lot of work and data analysis to really figure out if it’s happened, right. So for example, are they holding supervisors accountable if they fail to report misconduct. That’s something that we don’t know yet.”

“One of the recommendations of the Justice Department had to do with the timing and the process for what happens after an officer-involved shooting,” he continues, “making sure that officers and witness officers are separated so they can’t collude and start to get their stories straight, making sure that IPRA investigators were there on the scene, obviously once the scene is secured. But making sure that they really have an active role so that they are not just relying on the Police Department to do interviews first, and then IPRA comes in to do it after the fact.

So it’s crucial that, after a shooting, the Independent police Review Authority has investigators in the scene immediately.

Newman says that Police Board Chair Lori Lightfoot, and Sharon Fairley, who heads what was once IPRA but has now been re-tooled as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, have made strides toward reform of their agencies, but it’s something that isn’t easy to track.

“I think that both Lori Lightfoot and Sharon Fairley have really taken their positions seriously,” he asserts, “and are both really serious about making sure that the police oversight process in Chicago is fair and transparent and works with the community. They’ve both really made themselves open and available to the public in ways that I think wasn’t necessarily true before.”

Newman has written extensively for the Reporter about police issues, and a recent report tackles police moonlighting. Chicago’s, he tells us, is the only Department among America’s top 50 that does not require officers to report their moonlighting work to their supervisors. And with all the overtime that Chicago officers are being required to work in recent years, that’s becoming an issue. “Obviously the concern is that if you are being overworked, if you are working 15, 16, 17 hours straight, are you really clear-headed enough to be doing that job?”

Beyond the fatigue issue, Newman says the CPS fails its officers in a very significant way. “When this report was written, and I don’t know yet if this has changed, again, it’s one of the things the City says it’s working on and is adding more resources to the department within the Police Department that provides these services. But at the time there were three mental health counselors for a 12,000-unit strong police department.  Three people. That’s clearly not enough, and the tragedy is and I think this was actually in the task force report, that the Chicago Police has a higher suicide rate than other police departments. Not just in the general public, which that’s already the case, but than other police departments across the country. Obviously, we’re not helping these men and women the way that they need to be served, and making sure that there is no stigma about that, and making sure that the department is really serving their needs.”

If there’s any doubt that misconduct occurs in the CPD, consider the cash settlements the city made after lawsuits from the public between 2011 and 2016 The total came to more than $280 million.

“It’s an incredible amount of money,,” Newman insists. “And the most shocking thing to me as I’ve been reporting on these lawsuit settlements is again, unlike other cities, unlike best practices, the City of Chicago does not routinely and strategically analyze these lawsuits to see – are there ways that we could actually minimize the amount that we’re paying out? Are there ways that we could obviously minimize the underlying misconduct that causes all these payouts? That’s not something that the City has been doing, despite the fact that first the Mayor’s task force said they should be doing it, then the City’s Inspector General said they should be doing it, then the Department of Justice said they should be doing it, they’re still not doing it.”

“That’s low-hanging fruit,” he continues. That’s easy, right. It doesn’t take long. We did it. We took the time. They have access to the data about these lawsuits even more so than we do, right, and so it’s not that hard to be taking that data, mining it, and saying what could we be doing? What policies could we implement? What training could we do that might change some of these things?”

The reason the Reporter’s database has five categories of implementation, ranging from “implemented” to “Not done” with a special  “unclear” designation is that, just because an official says it’s done don’t necessarily mean that it’s been done. “One of the things I think we need to be careful about is the difference between having a policy on paper and actually knowing well how is that playing out on the street with police officers in the field. And so I think with all of these you need to take some of that with a grain of salt, because we just don’t know yet and may not know definitively exactly how all of these reforms are working.”

You can listen to this program in your earbuds on SoundCloud

And you can read a CN transcript Sep 21 2017

 

 

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CN Sep 14 2017

We spend most of our time on Chicago Newsroom focused on Chicago’s myriad budgetary, educational and social problems. But there’s no denying the dramatic construction boom that’s enveloping so much of our city’s central region and at least a few of its more affluent areas.

That’s the focus of today’s show. And our guide through the thicket of aerial construction cranes is AJ LaTrace, editor of Curbed Chicago.

“So, what we keep track of is current high-rise construction,” he explains. “And we measure that as buildings that are 100 feet or taller. So we just recently updated it within the last couple of weeks and we counted 54 buildings. And you know it’s amazing, because when we first started doing this around three years ago or so, I can’t remember the exact number but it was about 12 or something like that. And we just thought, oh this will be kind of fun, we’re in double digits now, but now we’re approaching dozens.”

Of course, there’s plenty of debate about why this development is concentrated in so few places while some neighborhoods can’t even get a branch bank or food store. But the construction boom that’s completely remaking our central city  is a very real thing.

Leading the way in this construction boom is the conventional, not-very-exciting or cutting edge apartment tower. That’s what dozens of those tower cranes are building. They’re not inspiring or significant, but they are money-makers, LaTrace says. And that’s what most developers craze. Its what the Tribune’s Blair Kamin has called “Form Follows Finance”

And, LaTrace tells us, those apartments, in the tens of thousands, are selling. “They call it the absorption rate, so you know, right now it seems like there are people to fill these buildings,” he explains. “As soon as that slows down obviously that’s when things are going to change, but you know, if Chicago keeps on this pace of new corporate investment and sort of job corporate outposts and things of this nature, I mean there’s a chance this could keep going on for another couple of years.”

And, he adds, if by some chance Chicago manages to land Amazon, “That would go on for the next decade at least.”

The conventional thinking is that Chicago and other big American Cities are enjoying an urban renaissance. But Urbanist Richard Florida has said recently that the central-city boom may  be over. The Millennials, he says, are (finally) starting to have babies, and like their grandparents, these new parents are starting to hear the siren call of the suburbs.

“I mean, there are so many variables to that,” LaTrace responds. “Obviously schools are one of the biggest ones and transit is really big too. I think a lot of people who are moving to the city are going to stick around indefinitely, or be around.”

“The thing that’s kind of odd is that in a lot of ways the suburbs are cheaper,” he points out. “And now it’s like $250k you can get a one-bedroom condo in the city, so you know, the economics kind of favor the suburbs in terms of obviously having a family, but I don’t know. I really do see the sort of, the terms like new urbanism which some people love and some people love to hate, but I think we’re going to see the cities really, I think people like me are going to stick around.”

And since it was the Millennial generation that so severely rejected the suburbs, and, in particular, the suburban office environment, the actions of this cohort in the next decade or so will be critical.

“But you know,” he adds, “I think it’s just kind of a cultural shift too. I mean you think about in the 70s and 80s and the corporate office park that was where people worked. And now if you take the Kennedy out and you go past Des Plaines and Rosemont and all these sort of late modernist high-rise office buildings that were built in the 70s and 80s they all have a big For Rent or Space Available signs.”

We also talk about The North Branch redevelopment, the new Apple store on Michigan, the Obama Library,  the Old Main post Office and quite a bit more.

You can listen to this program in your earbuds on SoundCloud.

You can read transcript of the entire show here:CN Transcript Sep 14 2017

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CN Sep 7 2017

Michael Hawthorne’s not too worried that Chicago will have to deal with a Houston-like 50-inch rainfall any time in the near future. But Chicago, like Houston, has a lot of impermeable paving, endless parking lots and massive buildings with acres of roofs. In other words, lots of places where rain ends up with no safe place to go.

About 50 years ago the region embarked on the Deep Tunnel project as a way to reduce Chicago’s chronic polluting of its waterways, and to alleviate flooding at the same time.

We ask Hawthorne, who’s an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune (and the paper’s environment writer) whether the project, now more or less complete, has succeeded.

He says in many says it hasn’t. “I mean the weather has changed,” he explains, “but the climate is changing as well, and the way it’s changed in Chicago is that we get either long spells of heat or cold. Think of the polar vortex or think of the 1995 killer heat wave, but we don’t necessarily get as much rain or more rain than we used to, we get it in shorter, more intense bursts. And that’s really challenging our sewer system and the deep tunnel more than ever before.”

Have we spent more than $4 billion over four decades in vain?

“The answer,”  Hawthorne explains,  “from people from the City, from the water reclamation district say no, it’s money well spent. The problem could be a heck of a lot worse if we didn’t have this.”

But there are problems. “Because even with the deep tunnels in place,” he says, “they’ve been in place for more than a decade now, the City a few years ago did a modeling projection of how the local sewers, the sewers that are actually on your street, how they could handle a storm. And they figured out that two-thirds of an inch overwhelms most sewers in the City.”

And still there are sewer outfalls into the Chicago River that expel waste after especially heavy rains. “A story that I did earlier this year found that one storm in July, there was enough raw sewage and runoff that came into the north branch of the river that it could have covered the loop in muck about eight feet deep,” he tells us.

We all know that Chicago is a city of inequalities, and lead is a major example. While market forces such as gentrification and property rehabs have stripped the lead out of older buildings in wealthier areas, that hasn’t been the case in low-income neighborhoods. So for many poorer Chicagoans, lead exposure isn’t much better than it was in 1970 or 1920.

“They tore the public housing high rises down and shifted people into scattered-site housing or what was for many years called Section 8 housing,”Hawthorne explains. “But many of those private homes where people could get a voucher to pay for a good part of their rent, were homes that were built before 1978 when lead paint was banned in the United States…And they are not kept up. I’ve been in dozens of them and they are not necessarily kept up fairly well and so peeling paint is a problem.”

Hawthorne and his colleagues have reported for years on the residual lead deposits that still ravage some communities years after lead was effectively banished elsewhere.  “In part, because of the research that the Tribune did in terms of looking at the shifting of lead poisoning rates from 1995 to 2013 by census block groups, (so – smaller than neighborhood areas), you can see that lead poisoning essentially disappears from the wealthier neighborhoods of the City. And while it still declines in say Englewood or parts of Austin, Lawndale, while it’s a decline from what it was in the mid-90s it’s still significantly higher than the current City-wide average,” he says. “In some cases one of every five kids instead of eight of every ten kids are poisoned. That’s still a pretty sizeable number, and (Harvard researcher Rob) Sampson has gone back and looked at the people that he’s been following since they were young kids in Englewood. And one of the first papers that came out from applying lead poisoning to his earlier research, he summed it up by saying that lead paint or lead poisoning is a way that racial inequality literally gets inside the body.”

“There’s research out of the University of Cincinnati, Hawthorne continues, “where they’ve been following kids since they were in the womb, and they found that when they were in their school age years they did more poorly on standardized tests. They tended to fail grades more frequently. And when they got older, when they were in their teen years and early 20s they committed not only crime, but violent crimes at a far higher rate than kids who weren’t poisoned. And they are now finding some of these people are now in their 30s, well past the time when the peak crime-committing age happens, and they are still caught in this kind of maelstrom of crime and poverty, and some of the participants have talked with the researchers about – I just don’t understand why I get so mad all the time, or why I’m always fighting with everyone.”

Hawthorne says it all raises an interesting question: why aren’t we tackling this problem?

“Can we kind of go toward the low-hanging fruit? This is something that we know that we can control. We can’t necessarily control jobs in a neighborhood. We can’t necessarily control whether people have easy access to guns. We can do things by trying to prevent them from being lead poisoned. We know what to do…On lead poisoning we made great success. Some public health people, the Illinois Department of Public Health would say that combatting lead poisoning is one of the greatest public health victories of the 20th Century. But we still have thousands of children in the City of Chicago who start out life very early on with a very preventable condition that is going to cause problems that cost society, that cost us, that cost taxpayers a heck of a lot more money in the long-term.”

Funding for lead programs has been severely cut in recent years, Hawthorne says, in part because there’s a perception that it’s last century’s problem. But there are thousands of young Chicagoans who are struggling with neurological problems brought on by lead poisoning of their brains. “And then,” he says, “You have this kick in the gut, as one researcher put it, where their brain is permanently scrambled at a very early age because they’ve played on the ground like any kid does, and they’ve ingested lead paint or lead dust. And their brain has been irreparably damaged in parts of the brain that control your impulses, emotional control that allow you to pay attention.

It’s not a case of the politicians and policymakers not having enough data to proceed with some remedial work, he says.

“One of the best studies in Chicago, there was a researcher who formerly headed the lead program under Mayor Daley, she managed to get the early lead testing data from 52,000 children in Chicago public schools, and then found a different way with folks at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to compare their rates of lead poisoning or the amount of lead poisoning as a child with how they performed in third grade. And every increase, slight increase in the amount of lead that these children were exposed to or that was in their bodies when they were 1 or 2 years old increased their chances of failing third grade by almost a third. And these are kids that were in third grade in 2003 to 2006, so they are kids that today would be in their mid-20s if my math is correct. And what I found even more staggering about that research is that about three-quarters of the average level of lead poisoning in about three-quarters of Chicago public schools that were open at the time, this is among those third graders, the average was above what the Center for Disease Control Protection says is a threshold where kids should be medically monitored, where inspectors should be visiting their homes. That’s a lot of lead-poisoned kids that are living in this City today and now are in their early to mid-20s.”

“The City of Chicago has, the Health Department has now they’ve got ten lead inspectors. I’ve gone to housing court, the Administrative Hearing building, every week there are people in court or at the administrative hearings because a child was poisoned by lead in their home, so the problem hasn’t gone away,” he asserts.

What can individuals do? “You can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s or the Ace Hardware and get a pack of lead wipes and you swipe it and it turns a certain color if there’s lead there,” he explains. “They don’t do that at the CHA. They don’t do that at the federal HUD, and there were all these promises in the tail end of the Obama administration to take care of that. Ben Carson, the new HUD secretary said during his confirmation hearings that he understood this subject and that it was going to be one of his top priorities, but nothing has happened in this new era, this new administration yet, on this issue.”

We also discuss the ongoing issue of the lead service lines that bring water into our homes. Unless your house or building was constructed later than 1986, your drinking water is probably traveling into your residence through a lead pipe. Running new copper lines into every building in the City is a massive project, and many homeowners might not want the disruption. But other cities have figured out ways to do it, and to make it a public health priority.

“You have to remember lead is on the periodic table of elements,” Hawthorne points out. “It doesn’t go away. And we emitted a heck of a lot of lead from factories and out of our automobile tailpipes and we have lead in our homes and our water pipes and our paint was full of lead. And people knew, people knew in the last century, in the early part of the last century that this was a problem. But in a scenario that was repeated by many other industries, the tobacco industry, chemical industry, the lead industry pioneered a campaign of deception and of confusion essentially to keep their products streaming into our homes and into our environment.”

“There are a lot of questions out there,” he concludes. “The one thing we know a lot about, we know about the toxicity of lead and we now know that there’s no safe level of lead exposure. And the fact that we have it bringing what once was clean tap water into our homes, that should alarm everyone.”

 

Here’s an archive of Michael Hawthorne’s Tribune stories

Here’s the SoundCloud link to this show

Here’s a transcript of this entire conversation:CN transcript Sep 7 2017

 

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CN August 24/31 2017

 

Lori Lightfoot, who chairs the Chicago Police Board, is our guest for the next two weeks  on Chicago Newsroom. We recorded a double-length conversation on August 24 and split it into two parts, both of which you can watch here.

Here’s part one

Here’s part two.

Lightfoot was just reappointed to the Board by Mayor Emanuel after what appeared to be a chilly meeting. Although the Mayor has made progress toward reforms that were recommended by the Accountability Task Force she chaired, Lightfoot has publicly criticized the Mayor for moving too slowly on the big, institutional changes she feels the public is demanding.

The Police Department is, she asserts, the most important civic institution in our city.  “If people don’t feel safe,” she explains, “if they don’t feel like the Police Department has legitimacy, that’s a recipe for chaos. So we’ve got to make sure that we do what we can to make sure the reforms are being done, that we strengthen the support of police officers through training, and we also make sure that the public is invited into that conversation with a full seat at the table, that there’s transparency around discipline and accountability. That is the only way that we are going to be able to stand up a Police Department that the public frankly can be proud of, but more to the point, we will feel comfortable calling in a time of need.”

“We recruit from segregated neighborhoods,” she continues. “And the young men and women who pledge their commitment to be Chicago police officers are coming from those segregated neighborhoods. They are meeting each other in the Police Academy for the first time. And in many instances, they are meeting somebody who is their same age, who has the same aspirations, but has a completely different background, and they come into the Academy with a lot of preconceived notions about the other.”

But, nevertheless, she says all recruits coming up in the system have to be comfortable with a new reality about policing, and that includes the scrutiny that video surveillance systems like body and dash-cameras bring to modern policing.

“If you’re not comfortable with the scrutiny,” she proclaims, “and really, to me what it comes down to is police legitimacy, it depends on the consent of the governed. It depends upon people… feeling like they are willing to afford officers the ability to use deadly force in certain circumstances at its most extreme. If you are not comfortable with citizen oversight– the consent of the governed– you should not be a police officer.”

Earlier this year, Superintendent Eddie Johnson rolled out a new “use of force” policy and began implementing it immediately. Lightfoot says it’s a solid beginning.

“One, I think, of the hallmarks of the new use of force policy is the emphasis on the sanctity of life,” she asserts. “And it says it upfront, unambiguously, which is important because you know, things like under Illinois law there’s something that was called the ‘fleeing felon’ rule. Which meant if somebody had committed a felony or that you as the officer believed that they might at some point commit a felony, you were fully authorized to shoot them in the back as they were fleeing away from you, when they posed no immediate danger to you. The concept was because they had committed a felony they might be a danger to the community. That’s a crazy law, and frankly I think even though shootings were done in those circumstances, it put the officers and the Department at odds with the public. There was a point in time where people obviously felt like that was okay, but the world has changed and policing has to not just be whipsawed by every political movement that comes along, but it needs to be mindful of the community in which it serves, what the community’s values are, what the community’s sensibilities are.”

During Lightfoot’s tenure as Chair, the Police Board, which functions as essentially a quasi-court for police personnel who’ve been charged with serious violations, found itself becoming a much more serious hearing body. Of fifteen cases heard, all resulted in a firing, a suspension or resignation. Now, if the Superintendent brings charges, the Board is far more likely to agree.

“When I started in roughly August of 2015, I was mindful of the fact that the Police Board concurred with the superintendent only 35% of the time, and I thought that seems odd to me.” Lightfoot wondered.

In fact, the more stringent police board is something the police union is threatening to make a big issue during the ongoing contract negotiations.

“Yeah,” Lightfoot says. “They want to move to try to take away the Police Board’s jurisdiction over these cases, and it should be a hot topic during negotiations, and the City should push back vociferously, and absolutely not yield any ground on agreeing that police officers don’t have to come to, in these serious cases don’t have to come before a public hearing and give account of themselves, rather than going into the black box of arbitrations as the Union is trying to do. That would be going so far in the wrong direction at this time, that I hope that the City sends a very clear message to the Union that is simply a non-starter.

On the subject of union negotiations, Lightfoot says the newly-elected Kevin Graham is going to find running the union more difficult than running for office.

“Well there are definitely Trumpian tones to Mr. Graham’s campaign,” she claims. “You know, I think again you have to take it with a grain of salt. The FOP obviously is the biggest union, and in theory they represent the largest number of officers in its collective bargaining unit. But I think you have to ask yourself who actually voted in that election, what percentage of the officers that could vote, actually did vote. I talk to officers all the time. I have friends who are officers. Officers stop me on the street and we have conversations. I’m not 100% accurate that the fire and brimstone that we saw during the course of the FOP presidency campaign is entirely reflective of where officers actually are, and I will say it– particularly officers of color.”

Some of what’s being said by the FOP, she says confidently, is just posturing as contract negotiations get under way. “You know, as President Trump is finding, campaigning is very different from governing. And being a responsible adult in a difficult situation I think requires different skills, different perspectives than it does to go out and campaign and say you’re going to be the toughest SOB that’s out there and you’re going to win this this and this for your people. The reality sets in pretty quickly once you’re actually in office and you recognize the constraints and limitations on the scope of your power. I would imagine some of that reality is setting in now, but as I said before I think the Unions are important. They play a particularly important role as being the voice and advocates for their members. But this is a different time, and they need to deal with the reality of what we’re in and the challenges that we face, and direction that we need to go in towards reform.”

Earlier in our conversation Lightfoot emphasized the importance of police personnel recognizing the “consent of the governed.” We asked her what percent of the current police department buys into the concept of “the consent of the governed?”

“I think a shockingly small number,” she says. “From my conversations, what I’ve witnessed, and I wouldn’t just say the rank and file, I would say it also goes up to the exempt ranks. I don’t think they’re there yet, but they need to be there, and I hope that we can get them there, and I hope they get there willingly.”

A lot’s been written lately about the “Strategic Subjects List.” It’s a data-base generated by an algorithm that purports to have the power to predict when person is in danger of shooting, or being shot. But, despite police officials telling the public that there were about 1400 people on the list, a FOIA obtained by the Sun-Times revealed that the data-base has almost 400,000 entries. We asked Lightfoot if the public should trust, or have confidence in, the List.

“You can’t get out there and constantly talk about the strategic subjects list without people wanting to know more about it,” she explains. “What is this? And am I on it? How do I get on it? What’s the criteria? … Managing the communications around what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it is critically important, and with due respect to the police Department, I think they’ve laid a big egg when it came  to this list.”

In June, a group of civil rights and other organizations filed suit against the city (Campbell v City of Chicago) seeking court oversight of the police reform process. Last week, the City filed suit to dismiss that lawsuit, saying that police reform was progressing well and court oversight was unnecessary.

Lightfoot says that the City, despite its efforts at police reform, is missing the point.

“Stepping back from this particular lawsuit, there’s a continuing sentiment that is deep and wide-spread, particularly in communities of color here in the City, that our police department is failing those same communities,” she tells us. “That our police department is continuing in practices that violate our constitutional rights. Now whether that perception is real or not, and I think there’s a lot of evidence that the problems continue, the perception is real. And deep. And heart-felt. We saw that in a number of different ways through the police Accountability Task Force process. And quite apart from litigation, the police department has to reckon with that perception and that reality because it cannot effectively do its core mission of keeping us safe if people don’t regard it as legitimate for whatever reason.”

We asked Lightfoot if she sees politics in her future.

“I’m interested in policy, I’m interested in getting something done,” she tells us.

“You know I come from very humble beginnings and I have been extremely fortunate and blessed in my life. And the challenges that I describe? Those are challenges for people of my own family. So I know this stuff very well and I feel it deeply.”

“I have a brother who’s spent most of his adult life incarcerated. He’s now a 60-something  year old man struggling every single day to find a job that doesn’t require him to do physical labor like he’s a 20-year old. So I get these issues. And I feel like given that I’ve been so fortunate, that I have an obligation to try to help.”

You can listen to these conversations as audio-only programs here:

Lori Lightfoot Part One on SoundCloud

Lori Lightfoot Part Two on SoundCloud

And read the full transcript here: CN transcript Aug 24 2017

 

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CN August 17 2017

Nothing much to report this week in the ongoing struggle to find equitable financing for Illinois’ public schools.

The effort to override Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto has stalled for now in the House, where there aren’t enough votes. The bill would outline a comprehensive plan for reforming education funding to public schools, and without it, the schools just have to wait.

“Yes, we have a budget deal,” explains Tribune Education reporter Juan Perez, Jr. ” No, we can’t distribute education dollars until we have this latest mess sorted out. And now you are seeing how again, the partisan divides that are happening in Springfield are playing out and driving this – honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this extend all the way through the Labor Day weekend. Personally that wouldn’t shock me at all.”

So if the override fails, does the process have  to start again, from scratch? House Speaker Mike Madigan says, no matter what, he’s not backing off the bill, known as SB1. “The Governor has also said that the parameters within the legislation are for the most part 90% to his liking,” Perez, Jr. explains. “So I don’t know that everything evaporates and you have to completely start from the drawing board. I think there’s a framework there that people can get to yes on. Again, … there are negotiations that are occurring and I would suspect that something like this can serve as a framework moving forward.”

What does this mean for Chicago’s public schools? Depending on what happens in Springfield, he tells us, “that assumes that $300-million in funding will arrive if the legislature manages to override and pass the current version of Senate Bill 1.” But there’s also talk of the City having to kick in an additional pot of money, too. Perez, Jr. says it’s looking like “an infusion of $269-million, the source of which hasn’t been discussed publicly by anybody who is actually in charge of making these decisions. Stop me if this is sounding like Ground Hog’s Day all over again.”

The major source of disagreement between House members is over the degree to which CPS, with its extraordinary proportion of students whose families live below the poverty line, should receive special funding to compensate the costs of teaching these more-expensive-to educate students. Perez, Jr. says the situation is complicated further by the vast disparity between CPS’ least-achieving and highest-achieving schools. At least three high schools, NorthSide, Whitney Young and Payton, were listed this week as among the very best high schools in the country.

“That’s amazing to see just kind of the broad range, only separated by a few miles here, sometimes not even that much,” he says. “It’s a question of how good the facilities are, how good the course offerings are, how good the academic outcomes are. It still astonishes me sometimes just to see just how broad those gaps can be in certain cases.”

If CPS’ fiscal troubles are ever solved, it won’t be soon. The loans that CPS has taken out just in the last year or two will cost more than a billion in interest over he next 30 years.

“I mean that’s an extraordinary amount of money,” he asserts. “And that ramp is climbing, but the debt service costs are also substantial and they are noticeable, and they are going to be growing as well. And what the school district is getting for these massive loans from their bankers are not the physical structures, the gleaming school buildings and facilities that you would normally expect to see. Instead, you are throwing a lot of interest and pushing off principal payments on a massive credit card bill just to basically get you a little bit of cash now so that you can kind of ease a little bit of the pressure that you have on the checking account this year and maybe next year.

But Perez, Jr. ends on an optimistic, if qualified, note.

“I think what the City is betting on is that to a certain extent the public understands the fact that yes, we do want to finance our public education system,” he declares. “We understand that this is a social good that needs to be financed, but everybody has got a breaking point. I don’t know how much patience there is amongst the City Council or others to take on yet another tax hike.”

You can read a full CN Transcript Aug 17 2017.

You can consider this show a podcast and listen on Soundcloud.

 

 

 

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CN Aug 10 2017

 

Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto of the education funding bill may bite the dust in the next few days.  At least that’s what two of Chicago’s most connected reporters are thinking, and they share their insights with Chicago Newsroom this week.

But, say the Tribune’s John Byrne and Politico/Illinois Playbook’s Natasha Korecki, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bill will be free and clear and the money will start rolling to the schools.

At this moment, it appears that the Senate will vote on Sunday, and they will easily override the Governor’s veto. The story’s different in the House, though, where the margins are narrower.

“What I think is gonna happen is they’re going to take the governor’s plan and put it in a separate bill. And say, OK, let’s vote on the Governor’s plan. And see how much support he has. And he’ll get probably ten votes for it and it’ll go down in flames,”  Korecki predicts. “Then, if Madigan feels he has the votes for a full override, maybe he does that…but he needs a super-majority to do that.  It doesn’t look like he has that as of yet, but who knows?”

“There’s been some talk of maybe a ‘trailer bill’ that would help fix some of the things in the original bill that Republicans don’t like,” she continues. “and get a few more Republicans over to get their votes.”

So it’s still very much up in the air. But Korecki says there’s a signal hidden in Speaker Madigan’s decision to hold the vote next Wednesday. That just happens to be “Governor’s Day” at the State Fair, so maybe that’ll be the day when Madigan’s House delivers the fatal blow to the Rauner veto. It’s politics, Illinois style.

“People really don’t like this pop tax.”

That’s John Byrne’s succinct summary of Toni Preckwinkle’s “sweetened beverage tax.” But how does he know? Has there been any polling?

“The only recent polling I’ve seen is the 87% hating the pop tax. And also the “Twitter straw poll,” where my Twitter feed is nothing but people holding up receipts, with the pop tax circled.”

“She’s even managed to tick off the LaCroix voters,” he adds. “If Toni’s lost the LaCroix voters, she’s in trouble, I’ll tell you.”

President Preckwinkle feels strongly about the tax, though, not just because she insists the County needs the revenue, but because she feels it will encourage increased health outcomes county-wide. Korecki’s not buying it. “It’s just affecting everyone,” she asserts.  “I don’t think people are gonna change heir habits. They’re gonna change their habits where they shop, but you’re not gonna stop drinking something because of the tax increase.”

“It’s visceral,” adds Byrne. “I hesitate to compare it, but in the visceral-ness of it, it’s like the parking meter thing was in the City. People are angry about it. And people are angry about these other taxes too, but but this pop tax, man it’s right in your face all the time and people understand it and they’re angry about it.”

Republicans are going to introduce a repeal ordinance, Byrne reports. But Preckwinkle still appears to have the votes to prevail, although only if she casts the tie-breaking vote for the second time. That makes her the symbolic owner of this unpopular tax.

And that could lead to a challenger for her post in 2018. One, freshman Board member Richard Boykin, has already held a press event to attack the soda tax.

“He was much broader in his attack on the president, reports Byrne. “Her leadership style, she’s a monarch. He said if I do choose to run against her – this isn’t a campaign speech – but if I do choose to run against her this will only be one part of the ammunition I will have against her, and then ticked off these other things he said she’s screwed up, and how she’s dictatorial.”

Mayor Emanuel’s been on TV a lot lately, but not on the local channels. He’s been taking his message of resistance to Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions on Sanctuary Cities directly to the national audience.

“He can go on CNN or wherever and they are happy to interview him as an elder statesman of the Democratic Party, because they’re looking for someone to hammer on Trump and he’s a very colorful interview,”  explains Byrne. “And then he gets to make his pitch for the city while he’s on there and they don’t have the background or the context – or the desire – to tick him off by fighting with him over violent crime when he’s on there talking about how Chicago’s gonna be at the forefront of fighting Trump’s immigration policies. This is clearly a pivot he’s decided to make and it’s working for him pretty well.”

But as both Fran Spielman and Mark Brown pointed out in yesterday’s Sun-Times, the Mayor’s record doesn’t always match his actions and his past statements on immigration.

You can listen to this show as a radio program on SoundCloud HERE.

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CN Aug 3 2017

 

Mike Fourcher tells us that school vouchers could be coming to Illinois. That’s been a key objective of the Republicans for a long time, and the Governor may have introduced them as he performed his amendatory veto of the education funding bill last Tuesday. But they’re not called vouchers. They’re called “tax scholarships.”

Fourcher, who’s a founder of the subscription news service The Daily Line, tells us that “There’s a whole fight about giving credits to charter schools and private schools.”

And here’s how it would work for parents with kids in non-pubic schools, according to Fourcher. “Essentially that they would get, the term that’s being used are tax scholarships, that every student that goes to a charter school or a private school qualifies as a tax scholarship for those schools for people that send their kids there.”

It would be a tax write-off. “A tax scholarship is another way of saying voucher,” he explains. “And I think that is what’s going on is okay, you know, we will get Chicago more money, but there’s going to be some kind of school voucher program that might go in, and that is the dream of a lot of conservatives.”

The bill that passed in the Legislature, it must be understood, is significant in so many ways. Despite all the headlines about partisan rancor and stalemate, both Democrats and Republicans managed, over many months, to hammer out an agreement that funds schools more fairly and lets schools rely less on their municipality’s already-stressed property taxes.

But the Governor claimed that the bill was unfairly generous to Chicago and amended it with his veto. That ignited yet another partisan fight. But Fourcher says he thinks there could be a resolution.

“Probably the week of the 15th,” he predicts.

Why? “A lot of people were already planning on being in Springfield that week anyway,  because that’s the week when the Democrats and Republicans have their big days (for the State Fair) in order to kick-off the campaign season. That happens on the 16th and 17th.”

 

Lori Lightfoot has been reappointed to the presidency of the Police Board. (We didn’t know that for sure as we were taping, but there had been broad hints earlier.)

Her reappointment was a difficult choice for the Mayor. Firing her would have shown him as weak – unable to withstand the criticism a woman he appointed has been leveling against him for his slow response to calls for police reform. But reappointing her would anger the police union and many rank-and-file officers.

As negotiations begin between the City and the union, Fourcher says, despite the issues of reform, this bargaining will center around economic issues.

“And if you read the briefs that the City has prepared, which I have, the City almost always makes a case about how the economics of the time are horrible and terrible,” he explains. “And the last time it went to arbitration was right after, it was right after the Bush administration and it was an economic disaster. It was a bad time, and so the City made the case that well this is a terrible time and so we need to keep wages down. And so there was a brokering of what went on, and this is traditionally what the City has done. The City has tried to keep contract costs down and in return it’s given away a lot of things to police officers.”

The critics claim that it’s those “things” – such as rules calling for the destruction of records, and the waiting time for officers to officially discuss their involvement with shooting incidents, for example – that are in desperate need of reform.

We also discuss the proposal to bring 20,000 housing units to the long-vacant South Works property on Chicago’s south side, with a massive lakefront footprint. Barcelona Housing Systems thinks it may have the answer in modular housing units that don’t have basements and can be built quickly and relatively cheaply.

But, we point out, 20,000 units would be a lot for Chicago to absorb.

“It would be,” Fourcher agrees. “Particularly in a part of the City which has been losing people. The south side of Chicago has been losing a lot of people and the south works borders South Shore on the northern part and it borders South Chicago on the southern part. South Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in the City. So you know, there’s a big question mark whether or not that’s something that’s really going to be able to grow, are people really going to want to move there.”

“And Chicago is really beginning to experience black flight,” he continues. “Black citizens are moving out of Chicago to go to places like Birmingham and Atlanta and Nashville and Houston. I have this conversation with a lot of black professional friends, where do you want to live? And there was an excellent book, The South Side, written by Natalie Moore, a large portion of her book is about how housing for African Americans is really not an investment, it’s often a money-losing deal…if you were going to try and build a new house in Englewood it’s very hard to build a new house for less than maybe $150,000, just the cost of doing it. But houses in Englewood are selling for $75,000-$80,000, so maybe this modular housing idea is going to be able to allow them to build housing that is affordable and in reach for a lot of people.”

 

 

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CN July 27 2017

John Chase and Danny Ecker have written a most damning account of Tax Increment Financing abuse in Chicago. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The BGA’s Chase and Crain’s Ecker worked for months reading transcripts, watching press conference videos and sending FOIA requests to City Hall for specific emails. They were looking into $55 million in City TIF money that was given to McPier for part of the construction cost of the almost-completed 1,000 room hotel across from McCormick Place.

What they found was an intriguing sleight of hand in which the TIF money was used for land acquisition for the hotel, but an equal amount of money from other McPier funds was immediately sent to Navy Pier to complete its current renovation.

“It’s overly clever, so give them credit for being clever,” says Chase. “Technically the TIF money was used on the hotel, on the land acquisition for construction, $55-million. ‘We’ve got receipts here and we handed (over) that money, and it just so happened to free up the exact same amount of money.’ What that doesn’t get at, if you give them that argument, which is still a little fuzzy in my mind because it’s not 100% explained, but just you give them that argument. They still don’t answer the second question which is the ‘but for’ clause, which is you have to prove that you needed the money. MPEA, look at it the way any developer wants to go and ask for TIF money, they want to build a project and they say, and they are sitting on a bunch of money and they want to go to an alderman and say, “Hey, I need 55-million bucks, otherwise I’m not going to build this thing.” And then an alderman presumably should go, “All right, well let me make sure you really need this money. Let me look at your books. Let me see what’s going on here. What exactly, how much money are you sitting on?” And we have from these emails it is clear from the head of MPEA, we have money for the hotel or Navy Pier, but not both. So they could have paid right there and then, they could have paid for the hotel. They are acknowledging they had the money on hand to pay for the hotel, so what was the real motivation for that $55-million? It was clearly Navy Pier because they got to do both, and because Rahm Emanuel said in 2013 you know, “Well all this soup will allow us to be creative financially,” and they were able to do both.”

“If TIF money is all based on need and you can’t do this but for the TIF money coming in, this development, well you know it was clear from these emails and from all the records we found that MPEA had all the money it needed for the hotel,” Ecker adds. “It was actually Navy Pier, this organization run by a separate private non-profit that has no blight to it at all that really did need the money.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, when the project was originally announced, the Mayor said that the TIF contribution was to be used for the construction of an arena, or “event center” adjacent to the hotel. DePaul was identified as the major tenant for the new building, although it would also be used for large convention events and the like.

“It was an event center, right, they were very careful about that,” Ecker explains. “So there was a lot of blow-back from the public on this. There was a lot written about it, and yet throughout all this discussion they ended up having to sort of tweak this agreement to say okay, none of this TIF money is actually going toward the event center, the arena, it’s all going to go to the hotel. I mean there was a lot written about it. And yet somehow it was not made clear or no one understood or reported that there was this whole arrangement going on behind the scenes to say ‘well they are actually using this TIF money to go to the hotel which just frees up the money to go to Navy Pier. And if that were the case I’m guessing there would probably be even more public blowback and it might not have gone through.”

Mayor Emanuel’s defense so far has revolved principally around job creation. he touts the thousands of construction jobs at both the Pier and the hotel, and the hundreds of jobs running these attractions, at least some of which will hire local residents.  But Chase says the jobs argument  doesn’t necessarily justify the expenditure.

“The idea that the only place to create jobs is at McCormick or Navy Pier, while those are certainly big and they certainly generate a ton of revenue for the City of Chicago and nobody wants to see them fail, the idea of taking from this pot that’s supposed to be set aside for a certain region or neighborhood, and to fight urban blight and to do this, whether they found a legal loophole or whether they actually…the money, that argument is almost, you know, that’s just one piece of the argument, those could have created a ton of jobs and generated a lot more for the neighborhood that created that TIF money.”

 

“I think there is, there are records that show that yes, this TIF money went to reimburse expenses related to construction of the hotel,” Ecker explains. “But, what these emails show, and as we’ve said, this was not the purpose of the TIF money, you know, and that was sort of this… If you want to call it staying within the legal boundaries that’s one thing, but this was not, this was sort of a blatant abuse of this system. You know in order to say well this is just going to be a front and it’s going to obscure what we are actually doing here, so if you want to call that within, just a good loophole that they found that’s one thing, but it certainly underscores this whole point about TIFs, and that’s long been scrutinized as this program that has very little oversight and it can be used as a slush fund for the Mayor.”

So, in the end, was this elaborate ruse worth it? Mayor Emanuel has said that in the past couple of years Chicago has regained its title, and is once again the nation’s leader in conventions. And tourism, the City claims, is at its highest-ever level. So did these investments trigger the bump? Chase says we won’t know for a while, because the hotel and event center aren’t even open yet. And with increased competition from mid-sized cities and the general drop in conventioneering due to on-line meetings and tightened budgets, Chicago’s overall convention business will likely continue to drop over the long run.

“But,” he asserts, “What we can say and what should be tied to these projects in perpetuity is the way these were done was not above board, you know, and this was a totally misleading way that it was done. So whether you want to say the end justifies the means, we don’t even know, because we don’t know if these are going to be worth the investment and whether they are going to be money-making efforts. But we can say that clearly this was done unscrupulously.”

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CN July 20 2017

Well, Illinois has a budget. But the schools don’t. Chicago Public Schools, for the third year in a row, presented to its principals a budget for their individual schools that’s based on state money that has been promised – sorta – but not truly appropriated. this time it’s $300 million.

The Legislature, as we know, handed the governor a pretty punishing defeat when it passed a budget he didn’t want and then overrode him when he vetoed it. His response? To fire large numbers of his staff, which then triggered secondary resignations from many others.

Our experts this week are WBEZ’s Illinois politics reporter Tony Arnold and Chris Fusco, the Managing Editor of the Sun-Times. Fusco tells us the budget didn’t get resolved because there had finally been a meeting of the minds between the governor and House Speaker Mike Madigan.

“It’s the credit agencies that really forced the State’s hand here, right. I think if it was up to Rauner and Madigan they would have just kept battling it out… Rauner wants to make us an anti-union State, or he’s kind of backed off that rhetoric. Now I think we’re going to kind of go back to that with the people he’s brought in, versus Madigan trying to protect labor rights, but also by doing that potentially exacerbating the pension problem. So we have these two guys and the credit agencies stepped in and said, “Hey, we’re going to lower you to junk.”

But as other state functions begin to blink back to life, money for schools is being held up because of, as always, pensions.

“Rauner has recently been saying he would veto part of the bill that would pertain to Chicago public schools,” explains Arnold. “The old amendatory veto, the AV. He does have the power to do that,  although Chicago public school says what he’s talking about would actually be unconstitutional, so it’s setting itself up for a very long prolonged court fight over…benefits in retirement.”

We’ve heard for years that the Illinois Supreme Court won’t allow cuts, or “diminishment” of pension payments because the Constitution forbids it.  But, says Arnold, “As far as contributions to a pension fund from the state government, well they’ve skipped those pension payments for years and that’s been allowed so far.”

So CPS and other agencies are required to make full pension payments, but they, and the Legislature, aren’t required to put the full amount of money in each year.

Nevertheless, the Legislature did accomplish something that’s been unreachable for decades. It refigured the formula for how Illinois schools are funded in away that allows additional money to flow to schools with higher populations of poor students.

“Governor Rauner I think is okay with most of what the formula is,” Arnold explains. “His Education Secretary has said he’s okay with 90% of it, that 10% is too much and that’s what he would veto out. So, for the most part, if the elected officials, the legislature, even though this thing passed with bare minimum in the House, the formula itself, the proposed formula, the new distribution model to give districts in poor property-wealth areas more state money than what they’ve been getting, because they say the whole systems have been inequitable for the last several years, that yes, this is a good way to do it.”

And having the state pick up Chicago’s share of the teachers’ pensions was part of that legislative deal. Until now, Chicago had to pay its own pension contribution, but Chicagoans, through their taxes, also support the pensions of teachers in every other school district in the state. That became more of an urgent issue because the state legislation also mandated that the City of Chicago must make its annual pension payment each year.

“And all of a sudden,” says Fusco, “after kicking the can down the road for years, we’ve got to make $600-million, $700-million payments into that fund to bring it up to the funding level that state law allows.”

So what does this mean at the school level? If there’s a veto and the veto sticks, there will be a massive hole in the CPS budget again this year. But CPS budgets the number anyway and hopes the check arrives.

“This has been the CPS stance now a few years running,” Fusco asserts. “You know we budget for the money. The money is going to be there. Wait, no, the money is not there. Okay, what do we do to get the money? How do we shuffle it? What do we borrow? Oh wait, now the borrowing rate is up to…depending on whether it’s short-term, long-term, anywhere as high as 6%. I think one CPS borrowing deal hit 9%. Just compare that to what you think about what you’re paying on your mortgage or your car loan. It’s just a real crazy time.”

The Governor has apparently decided that, if he’s going to get re-elected, he’ll have to hew more to the right flank of his party and his supporters. That’s why he’s brought in new staffers from the Illinois Policy Institute and other conservative advocacy groups.

“That’s what the Trump era has delivered us, and Rauner I think maybe stealing a page from that playbook, even if some of those people go against some of the values that he espoused in his first campaign,” Fusco tells us.

Arnold adds that Rauner’s staff had been heavily recruited from people who had formerly worked with Republican Senator Mark Kirk. “And Kirk’s whole political philosophy, when he was in the House he represented Chicago’s northern suburbs, which is not a strong Republican stronghold, but he represented that area for years, and in the Senate, was to be a moderate. To be a moderate Republican is how Republicans win statewide in Illinois.”

“When you have such high turnover, up to 20 people have either been fired or resigned in two weeks, that’s a huge turnover, and its policy people,” Fusco explains. “It’s high-ups in his office, people who advise him on policy, the chief of staff for the entire State government, so it’s noteworthy for that reason alone.”

Finally, we ask Managing Editor Chris Fusco about the recent sale of the Sun-Times to a consortium of local investors and union interests.

“I think we’re all happy about it,” he begins. “There have been concerns expressed about union ownership of the newspaper. There’s been concerns expressed about some of the people that are investors in the paper that have been written about by our investigative reporters … And right now the new management specifically CEO Eisendrath have said all the right things I think. The newsroom is going to be left alone…You know this is historically how, there’s always a push and pull. There’s always going to be calls made to publishers and CEOs about stories. There’s always going to be pressure exerted on those folks. And one thing that I think Jim Kirk and I have both kind of relayed up that chain is – be prepared because you’re going to get the calls. They are going to come. We’ve been doing this a long time…Those decisions are left up to Jim Kirk and myself, and I think as long as we are following the playbook that’s kind of been laid out there’s a bright future for the Sun-Times.”

You can read a full transcript of this show HERE: CN transcript July 20 2017

And you can listen to the show in your earbuds at SoundCloud.

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CN July 13 2017

Sustainability.

It’s a key goal for urban planners, and Chicago rightly claims that it is a reasonably sustainable city. With its denser neighborhoods, effective public transportation and policies that support renewable energy, our city claims itself to be a sustainable leader in the United States.

So, as our federal government withdraws from the world’s effort to use cleaner energy and to initiate more climate-friendly practices, hundreds of cities, states and corporations are announcing  that they will continue to adhere to the spirit of the Paris accords despite the Trump administration’s position.

Chicago is one of the key signatories to such an agreement. But what does it mean?

We talk this week with Karen Weigert, who until recently was Mayor Emanuel’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Water use per capitalization in Chicago is down over the last couple of decades. Transit reliability and usage is improving. Open space, such as parkland, has increased somewhat.

And, as Weigert tells us, “Most recently the City has come out and committed that all municipal buildings, including schools, etc., will be powered by renewable energy by 2025. That aligns exactly with the goals of the U.S. and the Paris Agreement in terms of that time horizon, so that is a big leap. Chicago will be the biggest city to have that kind of a commitment, so I think that’s extraordinary.”

But the road to sustainability can be bumpy. Many of the dazzling technologies that empower sustainable policies also rely on automation and autonomous operation, which means fewer jobs. And for a city like Chicago, there’s a rampant need for more, not fewer jobs.

Is the horrific violence we’re experiencing  in Chicago a “sustainable cities” issue? It is if you factor in employment, education and training.

It’s a wide-ranging conversation about the big picture of Chicago’s environmental, and in a larger sense, social, future.

 

You can read a full transcript of the show HERE. CN transcript July 13 2017

 

 

 

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