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Did Chicago Park District Skip Steps To Name Jesse White Center, Park?

 The Chicago Park District voted in October to begin the process of naming the Jesse White Community Center & Park, which was dedicated last month, after Jesse White.
The Chicago Park District voted in October to begin the process of naming the Jesse White Community Center & Park, which was dedicated last month, after Jesse White.
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DNAinfo/Mauricio Pena

CHICAGO — The Chicago Park District took the "extraordinary" step earlier this month to name one of its buildings after Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White — the first time park property was named after a living person in Supt. Michael Kelly's 12-year tenure.

Now Park District officials insist the vote to name the building also covered the park where the building sits at 412 W. Chicago Ave. — even though naming the park after White was never referenced in the approved proposal, and the proposal was never amended at the meeting.

Naming any public property after a living person is controversial in Chicago. Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed out of plans to name a school after President Barack Obama, citing policy of Chicago Public Schools that requires that buildings only be named after dead people.

 A rendering of the field house at 412 W. Chicago Ave., which is being renamed for Secretary of State Jesse White.
A rendering of the field house at 412 W. Chicago Ave., which is being renamed for Secretary of State Jesse White.
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

"It's about Jesse White, the man," Kelly said at the Park District board meeting on Oct. 8, where the proposal was heard. "The guy's career is legendary.

"In this case, I decided there was no sense in waiting. He is a remarkable individual, and it's going to happen eventually," Kelly said.

One year before that meeting, the Park District was already referring to the field house under White's name after the Jesse White Foundation agreed to contribute $2 million toward the $12 million field house's construction.

The park was dedicated last month, and a sign had already been built into the building at what until now was known as Park 560, identifying the "Jesse White Community Center and Field House." His group, the Jesse White Tumblers, will use the building as a base, officials said.

And even before the field house vote, a page on the Park District website referred to "Jesse White Community Center Park." That page has since been taken down.

The Oct. 8 vote technically was to initiate the 45-day notice period to allow for public comment before the field house will be officially named.

Kelly explained to board members at the meeting that the vote's "purpose is naming the field house."

When commissioner Tim King asked why they weren't moving to name the park after White, too, Kelly said a change to the proposal would be needed: "If you want to go that route ... let's just amend it," he said. 

While there was some discussion back and forth on what was required, Kelly in the end asserted "that you are naming it the Jesse White Community Center and Field House, not Jesse White Park.”

He also assured that the park wasn't much bigger than the community center itself and said there wouldn't be a field house named for White in a park named for someone else, as King feared.

The board then voted to initiate the 45-day notice period. No amendment to the original measure to add the park was put forward.

(To see a video of the meeting, click here. The discussion of Park 560 begins at the 24:09 mark.)

The next day, in response to questions from DNAinfo Chicago, Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said that the two measures — naming the field house and naming the park — "are one in the same."

She said the Park District's lawyer had determined that "no separate action is needed" to name the park in addition to the field house.

She also noted that the building's sign — which wasn't included on initial renderings released of the project — was made and added to the building "during the construction process in anticipation of community and board support, based on the history of the project."

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and expert on Chicago politics, said he thinks the board should take the additional step of naming the park, too.

"If they went through the process to name the field house, that seems fine, but they would need to follow the law to actually officially name the park," said Simpson, who said that includes formally initiating a separate 45-day notice period for the public to comment on the park-naming.

"It's a question of whether they've given adequate notice," he said. "The Park District has the power to name a park — that wouldn't be in dispute. But they might have to go back and clean up the process."

Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, said lumping the two measures together without a separate vote "seems like a hiccup" in the process.

"This [naming process] is not one that's controversial, given who it is," Francis said. "But if it was, it would be a big deal."

Simpson said the Park District has some wiggle room to change a proposal once it's been introduced and shared publicly — "they can certainly amend the original proposal," he said. "But they probably still need to go through the public hearing process again."

Still, Simpson agreed with Kelly that there was likely little opposition to naming the park after White.

White has "been a public official for 40 years in that area," Simpson said. "I doubt there's any controversy" over naming the park after him, which is why Simpson said it's generally important to provide the 45-day notice period for public feedback when naming a city property.

"But they still have to follow the process," he said. "I think they need to go back and redo it."

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