About 75 people attended a candidate forum sponsored by the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL) at Chute Middle School on Jan. 31. As part of the forum, the two candidates for Ninth Ward Alderman, Cicely Fleming and Shawn Jones, were asked questions about their priorities, equity, traffic, school funding and pensions, term limits, and helping immigrants. Some questions were prepared by OPAL, and others were submitted by the audience. This article provides the candidates’ answers to selected questions.
Ms. Fleming is president of OPAL. Mr. Jones, who has a law practice in Evanston, was a reporter for the Evanston RoundTable for eight years, covering City Council and City issues. Once he announced he was running for alderman, he stopped writing for the RoundTable in order to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
Question: What are your top two priorities?
Ms. Fleming said, “Equity – in the last several years, that is really the majority of what I talk about, pushing our City forward and our schools as well, looking at equity, but also race and how that fits into equity. Most of the disparities in Evanston, following national trends, fall inequitably on African American and Latino communities. I think that’s something we need to address here in the City in a variety of ways. I will keep that charge going.
“Second of all is affordability. The Ninth Ward is home to Reba Place Development Corporation, which has done a fabulous job with affordable housing, but I do think that the City needs to be a better partner to Reba and continue to support and enhance what they are doing since they are here in this Ward. But I would also like us to look at ways people are priced out, not just in property taxes, but additional fees that City residents pay,” such as dog-registration fees and beach tokens. “I think we have to think about our pricing structure, not only with our property taxes and water taxes, but also other ways in which our fees are so high that people are thinking of leaving.”
Mr. Jones said, “I have two, sort of twin, priorities. The first, and I think the most important issue that we’re all having to deal with, is a State and national environment that’s very unfriendly. We here in Evanston have a unique opportunity to actually take charge of our local government, and to try to separate ourselves from the national and from the State issues that we’re facing. I think we have the willpower to do it and the energy, and we have a budget so that we can make it work if we band together and address the issues and the pressures that are coming from outside of us. I think we can set the standard here in Evanston that others across the nation can look up to.”
“We have to preserve our character of Evanston. Part of that character is our diversity, which is economic and racial. We have to keep people here. We have to make it affordable. I have several ideas for affordable housing that we could work on. Reba does a great job, but we can work on other areas to make sure there’s affordable housing including for our police, firefighters, and teachers, who have to be able to buy housing somewhere in Evanston to allow them to live here.” Mr. Jones suggested creating the City’s own form of Section 8 housing, developing a roommate-match program, and micro-housing.
Question: How can we better fund our schools and address the pension issue without raising property taxes?
Ms. Fleming said, “We do have a referendum coming up, which is a hard sell. We have wonderful schools, but only about one-third of our population has kids in schools, so that’s asking people who definitely benefit in terms of property values if we have good schools, but don’t reap the benefits right by having kids here.
“One thing we need to think about is, we have officials in Springfield, … but as citizens we need to put a push on those representatives to have the State restructure how schools are funded. The District has brought in many more kids, but we don’t get much more funding from Springfield.” She said the State is also looking at having school districts pick up the cost of teacher pensions. “These are things that are out of our control because they are decided in Springfield.
“In the meantime we do have to pay for schools. Right now the referendum is the only way to go, because we need the money for next year. However, we need to be proactive so that in the five to eight years it’s estimated out, then we’ll come to another referendum, that the City has worked in partnership with the schools to be creative with the schools in how we fund them.”
Ms. Fleming mentioned the $1.9 million that the City will be receiving in additional revenues from the distribution of water. “That could be put toward our pensions or that could be put toward the schools. We need to be creative in our fund allocation.”
Mr. Jones said, “This question obviously has two parts, one part is under the control of City Council, the other part is under the control of the School Board.
“How we fund our schools is largely property-tax driven. It’s been that way for some time. Unfortunately, that puts a high burden on our taxpayers. I, too, support the referendum that is going to be on the ballot on April 4, because I believe we have to invest in our children.
“The pension funding for our police and fire is on City Council. The City has done a fairly good job of trying to keep ahead of some of the other municipalities who are way behind. I have some ideas as to how we can do a little bit better. I would like to except pension payments from any TIF [Tax Increment Financing] districts. So that any TIF money that would go into pensions would go directly there and would be exempted. We may need to go to Springfield to be able to do that.
“Also, Northwestern has a good neighbor fund now, and they give us $1 million a year. I would ask that for at least one year, they contribute the entire $1 million toward our pension fund. That would give us a leg up on the $141 million they are underfunded. I believe Northwestern would probably do that.”
Question: With all the recent national news on immigration, can you tell us how you are prepared to help needy immigrant families in Evanston?
Ms. Fleming said, “We do have the [welcoming] ordinance now, I think part of what we need to do is to make sure what we are doing on paper in our ordinance is reflective of what we’re explaining to our police force, what we’re explaining to our church leaders, to people who have connections and relationships with our immigrant population because I would imagine – I’m not an immigrant – but I imagine there’s a lot of fear. We have to make sure that people who are delivering services here in the City and our school administrators and teachers are clear on what the City is willing to do and commit to its population.
“We need to make sure we have translation services available. We have to make sure that our police staff, when they’re out in the community, is explaining correctly what the protections are to those individuals. So if they are in need of services, if they do have a question, they know that Evanston is a safe and welcoming place to come ask those questions. So people are not living in fear at least we contain that within our City.
“Now that we have the strengthening ordinance, and we do know that we’re somewhat at risk of losing federal dollars, I think we need to stand behind that ordinance and I think we need to stand behind our residents.”
Mr. Jones said, “There are two distinct sides to this question, and Cicely is very wise to touch on the emotional side – the fear. There are a lot of folks in our community walking around in fear of what’s coming around next. I believe that we need to establish an immigrant resource center at the Civic Center, maybe partnering with our current Latino Resource Center or let the Latino Resource Center take the lead on this and offer resources to whoever needs them and comes into the City and asks for them.
“The second side of this is the practical side. There are a lot people who risk or face possible legal action. We need to marshal our resources here in the City. There are a bunch of attorneys here in Evanston who are willing to devote some time and energy to this. Through the resource center in the Civic Center we can facilitate pro bono lawyers to help these immigrants. We can coordinate whatever needs to be done.
“I would hope we can address both sides of this, that we can try to squash some of the fears people have by offering them a safe place to come and ask questions, but also, when necessary, hook them up with lawyers so that they can have their needs addressed.”
Ms. Fleming said, “I moved back several years ago to raise my children so they would have the Evanston lifestyle that I did enjoy. However, upon returning, I think I realized some of the things my mother talked about when I was young – which is the division we have in the City. And although I lived in three other states, coming back here I felt we had solved that problem, I really believed that all the awards that we have in the City and all the things we have on our website and I came back and got more involved in my children’s school and the community, I realized that a lot of that wasn’t what it appeared to be, it was things hanging on the wall. But I’m not one to just sit by and complain, and so I got busy in a variety of ways to find my niche in the City and make a difference in the City that I love. And I organized unity meetings, and seeing so many people feel disconnected and unvalued in our City led me to get some friends together and start an organization.
“But past that as I really look at City government and the people who make decisions for our life, I realized it’s not reflective of the people who live here. And sometimes people feel like it’s so disconnected they don’t even vote. So I really spent the last several years trying to help people to understand that, a lot of community meetings around that, and also trying to make the push for those people who are never going to come to City Council, who might never vote, still have a voice I think is important. So making a push on behalf to elected officials and so that is why I’m running for office so I can be an elected official and hear that voice and understand that voice.”
Mr. Jones said, “I’m not from Evanston. I grew up in the South. But I live here. I work here. I love Evanston, and I’m raising my family here. Every step of the way through this process my sole and only goal is to make Evanston better and to work with you to make this a better place.
“Within two months of moving here, I started writing for the Evanston RoundTable, covering City Council. I didn’t know anything about Evanston, and that was the fastest way to get to know this community. A couple of years thereafter, I moved my law practice here. I’m on Church Street downtown. I’m accessible to everyone at all times. I live here, and I work here. I think that we can do a little bit better. We have a great City, but we can keep striving to do better.
“My experience as both a local attorney representing small businesses and representing everybody out there, representing immigrants, refugees, and representing Missionary Baptist Church, for example, representing the community, gives me an insight into what’s going on at the ground level in the community. I think I can bring that to City Council.”