Housing, racial equity, policing dominate Evanston City Council … – Chicago Tribune

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Local watchdog organization Community Alliance for Better Government hosted City Council candidates for a public forum in anticipation of the April 4 election where Evanstonians will vote on several local elections, including City Council’s contested 2nd and 9th Ward seats.

The 2023 special election comes after Councilmembers Cicely Fleming of the 9th Ward and Peter Braithwaite of the 2nd Ward resigned from their positions last year. Mayor Daniel Biss took applications and appointed Councilmembers Juan Geracaris and Krissie Harris to the 9th and 2nd Wards respectively. The two now face contention this spring.

Geracaris is being challenged by retired Cook County social worker and CABG Treasurer Kathy Hayes. Equity and Empowerment Commissioner Darlene Cannon, who fell short of Braithwaite by 21 votes last election cycle, and Lincoln Elementary Teacher Patricia Gregory, who did not attend the forum, are looking to dethrone Harris in the 2nd Ward.

While Cannon and Harris’ answers hint at a similar approach, their answers were different from the first question — “What is the most pressing issue facing your ward?”

Cannon said developers “harassing” residents to sell their homes — which ultimately impacts housing affordability — is the top issue. Harris cited racial equity concerns, saying all voices need to be heard, not just the loudest or wealthiest. Both shared housing affordability and racial equity concerns during the forum.

“The most pressing issue I see is the ward’s rapidly changing demographics,” Cannon said. “I have collaborated with Byron Sigcho-Lopez, (a democratic-socialist representing Chicago’s 25th Ward), to bring forth an ordinance against predatory developers harassing residents.”

Under this ordinance, Cannon said developers would be penalized if they continuously approach residents unprompted. Sigcho-Lopez’s ward, which includes Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, is experiencing gentrification and his experience helped provide Cannon with further insight.

Harris talked about racial equity citing her work with the City of Evanston Black employees Action Group, which brought racism allegations against the city on Nov. 1. The action group requested Harris work with City Manager Luke Stowe to improve work conditions, the city announced its initial 60-day plan addressing these concerns in December.

Harris also said calling out racial inequities, investigating predatory practices and engaging the community for collective remedies will remain the focus of her racial equity work.

“The thing about diversity, equity and inclusion is you have to hear the voices of those being disenfranchised,” Harris said. “You have to listen to what they’re saying and not what you think is the accurate synthesis of that information.”

Cannon agrees with Harris that fixing Evanston’s workplace culture is one place to start addressing racial equity concerns. She said the city needs to look at its upper management and evaluate “if these are the … people we should have working for the city.”

Cannon said she isn’t entirely sold with the city’s response to racism allegations, saying “it seems like we aren’t resolving anything, we’re just pushing it down the road.” She said true progress would mean the city significantly engaging with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national organization working toward improved racial equity.

“Until we work with (racial equity) organizations and implement (policies), I think it is going to continue to be business as usual because this has been going on for decades,” Cannon said.

Williams, in a phone call with Pioneer Press leading up to the forum, said there has been progress in addressing these employee concerns.

“I have been meeting with Stowe and I’ve also been in contact with the Black employees, and they’ve been meeting with Stowe and Harris (about these concerns),” Williams said. “So it feels slow, but there is some progress being made.”

Harris said achieving racial equity is a long-term battle, not a quick sprint but she said she’s ready to take on the challenge.

The Citizens’ Network of Protection, an organization created to promote racial and economic justice within the legal system, submitted a question for candidates asking for their opinion on the Evanston Police Department potentially using drones for policing.

Harris never directly said if she supports drone use or not instead praising Police Chief Schenita Stewart for doing a great job in her new role. Harris also said there has been an increase in crime nationwide, not just in Evanston, and something needs to be done about it.

The Citizens’ Network of Protection’s question brought forth privacy concerns but Harris compared drone use to Ring doorbells videotaping those approaching doorsteps, saying the good of the whole needs to be considered rather than just the individual. She also said Ring doorbell use should be incentivized.

“We want [others’] privacy invaded when we’re harmed, and then we don’t want to engage when other people are the victim,” Harris said. “(We should ask ourselves) how do we engage the community to ensure the see something, say something philosophy is used … when it’s in the benefit of the whole.”

Cannon said the city should be more focused on addressing the cause of crime instead. She said crime is often an act of survival due to economic hardship so enhancing the city’s social and financial resources should be a higher priority.

Like Harris, Cannon said Ring doorbells are helpful when catching crime on camera but the devices are expensive. She said the city should look at providing Ring doorbells to those who cannot afford the device.

Hayes and Geracaris came to a quick agreement when both said housing affordability is the chief concern facing their primarily residential ward. Geracaris currently serves on Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee and has sponsored referrals looking to help local tenants, including a fair notice ordinance. Geracaris said spending is another concern in an effort to keep taxes down, something he fought for during the 2023 budget debate.

Hayes shared a similar sentiment, saying affordable housing is an issue due to Evanston being landlocked. She said looking for new ways to incorporate affordable, equitable housing while also increasing economic development transparency will hopefully spark improvement.

“We believe in families starting here and staying for multiple generations,” Hayes said. “We wish to have accessible, affordable housing for not only the middle class but also for (those experiencing financial hardship) and disenfranchised individuals.”

Racial equity, particularly with Evanston’s Black community, played a big role for Hayes and Geracaris.

Hayes said she hopes to establish a mentorship platform for Evanston’s marginalized communities. She said since economic hardships are causing Evanston’s Black population to leave, she wants a more personalized approach to “help generations go from one level to the next.”

Hayes said Evanston’s Black community feels ignored and a program like this would engage residents while also building them up “individual by individual.”

She said this platform can’t exist alone, it must incorporate a plan outlining community outreach initiatives for optimal utilization.

Geracaris said he will focus on active listening since he is not part of the Black community. He said most municipalities have a tendency to have poor track records with minority populations and Evanston needs to evaluate its journey through listening.

He said his referral looking to add a staff-performed “equity check” when the city considers new legislative materials is an example of his ongoing efforts toward addressing racial inequity.

“ (This will) provide visibility and collaboration with the Equity and Empowerment Commission,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for the Black community but I want to use voices in the community and have them make sure we are considering all equity things. Not everyone has the same views, everyone has blind spots … if you look at equity after the fact, you’re going to miss things.”

Drone use for EPD policing brought forth privacy concerns for both Hayes and Geracaris. Hayes echoed Cannon and said EPD should focus on establishing stronger community relationships to reduce crime rather than using these tools.

“One way to prevent crime is community, being able to initiate a (sense of) community with all different types of neighbors,” Hayes said. “Drones and other (gadgets) are just an added tool but the primary thing to divert and eliminate crime is having and rebuilding community.”

Geracaris agrees that drone use shouldn’t be a primary concern at the moment. Instead, he suggested focusing on social support programs to help those experiencing poverty. He said drones could bring forth privacy concerns if used inappropriately and should proceed only with strict legal consultation.

Early and mail-in voting begins on Feb. 23, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Voter registration will end on March 7 and vote by mail will end on March 30. The election will take place on April 4 with early voting concluding on April 3.

Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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February 16, 2023 at 06:14PM

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