‘Crowd in a barrel’

By Darryl Holliday

Even in a room full of taxpayers and city politicians, the point had trouble getting across.

The second of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two scheduled town hall meetings last week, billed as a public forum on the forthcoming 2011 city budget, went much like the first—vented frustrations, complaints and the occasional congratulatory cheer—all moderated with a hint of disorder.

Emanuel fielded questions from the audience on a variety of topics at the West Side’s Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren St., including mass foreclosures, potholes, crime, union layoffs and one especially notable remark from a shy seventh-grader, whose question centered around the high number of liquor stores and subsequent drug dealers that make her walk to and from school a danger.

The question was an intersection of several points raised at the meeting—the city’s educational priorities, crime and the notorious lack of tax increment financing funds in blighted areas—with Emanuel adding to the equation by noting his commitment to “cut down food deserts in the city” rather than liquor stores being used as grocery stores.

“This is about more than the budget; it’s about how we work as a city,” Emanuel said at the beginning of the gathering in a statement that seemed all the more fitting throughout as the discussion gave way to broader concerns on issues facing every Chicagoan.

At times, the meeting seemed at a mild boiling point. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 73, the majority of attendees, could be heard threatening a collective chant that never fully materialized. Residents filled in the gap with questions for the mayor.

“In what way will the budget assist community college students?” one man asked.

A similar question can be applied to many aspects of life in the city, as the budget applies to almost every part of the way city government functions.

Emanuel has invited residents to speak up before October, when his new budget will be announced and sent to the City Council for approval.

“I want ideas, not insults,” Emanuel said of the town hall meeting. “I want people to be constructive, not complain—complaining won’t close a $635 million budget deficit.”

What he got was a bit of heckling, conversation, constructive opposition and a few words of comfort.

“I just wanted to introduce myself because the mayor never comes to the West Side,” said a 90-year-old woman, who garnered a response of admiration from Emanuel.

“Pleased to meet you and pleased to work with you because we want our city to continue to be the best city in the world,” he said.

“Just remember that you’re our employee,” she said. “Keep that in mind and we’ll be alright.”

Watch video of the town hall meeting