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33rd Ward Residents Say It's Time for Change, But Not Sure They'll Get It

By Patty Wetli | July 11, 2013 12:42pm
 With Ald. Dick Mell retiring, his constituents have plenty of thoughts about his replacement, even though they don't have a vote.
With Ald. Dick Mell retiring, his constituents have plenty of thoughts about his replacement, even though they don't have a vote.
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ALBANY PARK — As the application deadline looms for candidates interested in filling Ald. Dick Mell's soon-to-be-vacated City Council seat, residents of the 33rd Ward are viewing the process with a mix of skepticism and hopefulness.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced he will name a replacement by the end of the month, and Mell has publicly stated he'd like the nod to go to his daughter, state Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago).

Politics as usual in Chicago, some say, but others find the back room wheeling and dealing grating.

Carol Maher, president of the People of East Albany Park block club, said whoever takes the seat should vow not to run in the next election.

"I feel strongly that the best outcome for the 33rd Ward would be for the Mayor to appoint a placeholder to fill out the remainder of the Mell term. Someone who has no interest in running for the seat," said Maher, who also penned a scathing letter published in the Tribune.

"Then, in 2015, there will be a truly open seat available without the power of incumbency behind one candidate. That is what democracy looks like, not the ruse the Mayor is putting us through now."

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman, said voters are growing weary of business as usual — to a degree.

"People are getting tired of the nepotism. But they're not yet prepared to vote out the political machine," he said.

Dick Mell heads one of the strongest machines on the North Side, having handed out scores of patronage jobs over the years, according to Simpson.

Though a strong Latino candidate could pose a serious challenge, it takes time to build the kind of organization and base of support Mell already has in place, he added.

The machine "can be defeated, but not easily," said Simpson. Assuming Deb Mell were appointed to the seat and "did a good job, she'd be elected."

Though no other individual has revealed their intention to apply for the job — State Sen. Iris Martinez, frequently mentioned as a likely candidate, did not respond to a request for comment — community leaders have a laundry list of qualifications they'd like to see in their future alderman, whether their last name is Mell or not.

"Albany Park Neighbors wants an alderman who actively seeks input from constituents and considers multiple viewpoints, which can be achieved through regular ward nights, advisory committees, participatory budgeting, and more," emailed Shylo Bisnett, the group's founder.

"We also hope for a candidate who embraces technology and social media in a variety of languages," she continued.

John Friedmann, vice president of environment for the North River Commission and an active neighbor in the Horner Park area, said he would like the new alderman to exhibit an independent streak along the lines of 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack.

"He's always at least questioning things," said Friedmann.

Given the ward's diverse population, bilingual skills would be a plus, as would an ability to engage residents who inhabit a wide range of socio-economic levels, he said.

"We have everything from affluent condo owners to illegals. They need to reach out to everything in between," said Friedmann.

Diversity was also a key issue to Roya Mehrnoosh, acting president of the West River Park Improvement Association.

"To me, an alderman's qualification includes the willingness to care about and hear his/her constituents equally, no matter what language they speak," she said.

"I personally would like to have an alderman that is accessible and doesn't brush off the new immigrants who move to the area, no matter how long they are staying and how much voting power they carry."

The appointee will also face a number of pressing issues upon taking office.

Friedmann cited a number of concerns: cuts to after-school programs, leading to "undirected teens"; an increasing lack of affordable housing in an area that's historically served as a gateway for immigrants; the need to address flooding caused by the Chicago River — "We can't have whole blocks of two-flats underwater"; and sprucing up Albany Park's image, especially along Lawrence Avenue.

Given the neighborhood's multicultural offerings, it should look like "a mini-Toronto, not a Third World country," he said.

With its membership split among three wards — 33rd, 35th and 39th — Albany Park Neighbors is focused on the need for collaboration.

"The new 33rd Ward alderman must be committed to working closely with those other representatives to address the challenges and concerns of our whole neighborhood — instead of just their portions," Bisnett said.

Residents also are keenly interested in economic development.

Misha Mann, president of The Residents of Irving Park, would press the new alderman to help bring a proposed Special Service Area online, which would collect an additional tax from property owners within defined boundaries to fund services such as snow plowing.

"Let's get those empty storefronts filled," said Carol Maher. "Let's fill our commercial streets with local residents walking down the street to do their errands, buy their food, go out to eat. Let's create the energy that comes with people living, working, playing and spending in Albany Park."