WEST ROGERS PARK — Incumbent Ald. Debra Silverstein was the only 50th Ward aldermanic candidate to decline to meet Wednesday night to talk with voters about a wide range of topics, including education, a "rubber-stamp" City Council and legal pot.
Silverstein's seat remained empty during the candidate forum after she reversed her decision to attend the West Rogers Park Community Organization's event at Devon Bank.
Silverstein said in a statement she ultimately declined the invitation because the organizer's chairman, Ahmed Khan, privately endorsed opponent Shajan Kuriakose. The alderman, in her first term, said the endorsement compromised the objectivity of the forum.
She also took issue that write-in candidates were allowed to participate. She said she did attend three other candidate debates in the months preceding the Feb. 24 election.
Alan Goldberg, the organization's vice chairman, said before the forum started that Khan recused himself from all planning of the forum and didn't violate any of the group's bylaws. He also didn't attend the event.
"It’s her loss, and our loss, so we’re moving forward," Goldberg said.
When reached Wednesday night, Khan said he endorsed Kuriakose as a resident of the ward, not as an official with the group.
"I think Ald. Silverstein's reason for lack of attendance is an unacceptable excuse, especially when close to 60 residents came out on cold night to listen to the candidates," he said.
The forum continued, however, with the other candidates, including Kuriakose, Zehra Quadri and write-in candidates Peter Sifnotis and Fuji Shioura. About 60 residents attended, as well.
The Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky moderated the forum and posed the first round of questions, which led with asking how the candidates could unite a fragmented neighborhood made up of so many different groups.
Sifnotis, a former Marine, said his experience overseas working with Pakistanis, Iraqis and Lebanese provided valuable leadership experience.
Kuriakose said communication among the different groups in the ward was paramount to its success.
"West Rogers Park is one of the most vibrant communities in the City of Chicago," he said. "I will work to make sure we represent all community groups."
Candidates also addressed participatory budgeting, which has failed in some wards and worked in others.
All candidates supported transparency in how the $1.3 million in aldermanic discretionary money is spent each year.
Shioura, an educator and technologist, said he would use online tools to boost engagement.
Quadri, founder of ZAM’s Hope Community Resource Center on Devon Avenue, said she would create separate committees, composed of business owners and residents, to decide how to spend the money.
The candidates also supported the reform of tax increment financing in Chicago.
"I recognize TIF is a powerful tool that could be used for good, but it really has turned in to the mayor’s slush fund here in Chicago," said Sifnotis, adding the money could have been used to save shuttered schools.
The candidates also expressed support in an elected school board.
"I am all in favor of an elected school board — and am opposed to charter schools," Kuriakose said. "My special interest is this ward and is not going to be corporate America or who decides to give money."
Shioura said he would bring a neighborhood high school to the ward, as well as "one or two" charter schools funded with only private money.
Questions then were taken from members of the audience. One asked whether the candidates would have the chutzpa to defy the mayor and a "rubber-stamp" mentality at City Hall.
All the candidates said they would fight for the ward, not for political favors. They all said they would have opposed giving Marriott Marquis a $55 million TIF subsidy to build a 1,200-room hotel next to the new DePaul Arena adjacent to the McCormick Place convention center, which was approved by the City Council last year.
"I had the misfortune — no, opportunity — to meet the mayor," said 28-year-old Sifnotis. "I don’t find him all that intimidating."
Finally, someone brought up whether pot should be legalized.
Only Quadri disagreed, saying the drug should only be used for medical purposes.
"Legalize it and tax it," Kuriakose said.
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