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Thursday, March 14, 2019 12:05 am

Ward 7 wars

Challenger criticizes McMenamin’s style

 The biggest issue in the race for Ward 7 alderman is the incumbent.

Ald. Joe McMenamin has drawn the ire of fellow aldermen whom he has excoriated for accepting campaign contributions from labor unions and entities that do business with the city. There have been arguments at council meetings to the point that some aldermen at the receiving end of McMenamin blasts have suggested that council members deemed unruly should be removed.

Even McMenamin supporters acknowledge flaws.

“Does he have his issues? Yes, he does,” says Michael Higgins, who twice has lost aldermanic elections to McMenamin but has endorsed him in the April 2 election against Brad Carlson, a Capital Township trustee and chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Joe still has a problem…communicating with people, you know what I mean?”

During the 2015 race, Higgins called McMenamin divisive and ineffective. But the alderman’s positives, Higgins now says, merit re-election.

“I’ve not seen where it’s been detrimental to the ward,” says Higgins, who is president of the MacArthur Boulevard Association but spoke as an individual. He says McMenamin hasn’t borne a grudge against him after past campaigns. “During the campaign it might get testy, but afterward, no,” Higgins says. “If you watch him, he’s knowledgeable in what he says. He’s gotten a lot of sidewalk and street work done in his ward. He takes phone calls. … He’s probably one of the most environmentally friendly aldermen up there, if you look at some of the stuff he’s supported.”

Brad Schaive, business manager for Laborers Local 477, has an opposite opinion.

“I would say ‘maverick’ is a façade,” Schaive says. “I truly think that the success or failure, overall of the community, in my opinion, is largely based on the success or failure or cooperation of all 10 aldermen. … I think that those individuals need to work together. They don’t always need to agree. They need to coalesce into good-sense government. I would say I have seen none of that from Ward 7.”

McMenamin has never voted for a city budget, saying he can’t support spending plans that don’t address an ever-worsening pension crisis. He has voted against collective bargaining agreements on grounds that the raises increase pension debt. But he has supported some, notably a contract with city firefighters, because, he says, the deals contain residency requirements.

McMenamin sometimes boasts about the same things that his opponent attacks. For example, McMenamin in February said he was proud of being the sole vote to lower the city’s expected rate of return for pension investments, which would have increased the city’s annual pension contributions by millions of dollars. McMenamin said he would support a tax hike to fund the increase. The day after the council vote, Carlson blasted McMenamin in a press release. “When you can’t get a single vote for your ideas on the council, it’s clear you and your ward – Ward 7 in this case – has no support on the city council,” Carlson wrote. “Cooperation, not confrontation, gets things done.”

McMenamin doesn’t deny being a voice in the wilderness, an alderman who isn’t afraid to rankle or even infuriate colleagues. It is, he says, an important role. “The one voice in the wilderness will disappear of Brad Carlson is elected,” the alderman says.

In an interview, Carslon says he’s a true bipartisan candidate in a race that is officially nonpartisan. “Not only does he not seem to get along with his fellow aldermen, he refuses to sit down with either business or labor,” Carlson says.

McMenamin has never been in a one-on-one council race and has never won a majority. Higgins got 30 percent of the vote four years ago – will his support put McMenamin over the top in a two-way race? “It’s hard for me to speculate on that,” Carlson answers. “For me, looking at it from the outside, it’s not surprising that a Democrat is supporting another Democrat.”

McMenamin is against building Hunter Lake, saying it’s an unnecessary expense in a city where water use is in decline. Carlson says he’d vote for it because the city needs growth. Carlson says he’d like to see a university presence downtown, but, at the same time, he’d like the Y block to generate tax revenue. McMenamin agrees that development on the Y block should generate taxes, and he’d like to see the city ask for new proposals from developers.

McMenamin blasts aldermen for a 2017 gathering at Saputo’s, where seven council members received campaign contributions from labor and development groups. Carlson won’t condemn the gathering, noting that contributions were legal and no laws were broken so long as no city business was discussed. “They were basically following the law,” Carlson says. He counters by attacking McMenamin for structuring contributions in 2011 in increments below $1,000 so they wouldn’t have to be reported until after the election. That, also, was legal.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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