Monday, September 22, 2008

Anatomy of A Blackmail

posted by Peter Rossi

Just when it looked like the community had the NIMBY war council on the ropes, they bounced back with the Doctor's Hospital petition drive. At their secret meetings, I'm sure they are grinning like Brian Urlacher after laying a blindside hit on a quarterback. The community be damned, we have interjected ourselves as decision makers.

This petition drive required months of work. In this post, I will describe what I have learned about this little spot of blackmail. Some of what I have learned comes from public records, some of it is simply inference, and some speculation.

Sometime last winter, I imagine one of our NIMBY Princes got the idea of voting the precinct dry. This would stop a hotel of any kind at the DH site. Not only that, but it will discourage developers not just in the 39th precinct but all over Hyde Park.

A search of the precinct maps on the City of Chicago web site showed that the 39th precinct is a tiny area consisting of Harper Ave, the west side of Stony Island Ave, and the east side of Blackstone Ave between 57 and 59th. This could be doable, thought our NIMBY field generals.

But there are a couple of obstacles to overcome: 1. They needed legal help to insure they produced the most credible blackmail threat (i.e., the measure makes it to the ballot), 2 They needed help obtaining signatures -- this includes both manpower and an entree to the voters of this precinct.

The problem with the first obstacle is that legal help can be expensive. Our friends would require the consulting services of a lawyer well-versed in election law. We now know that this group hired a very well-known election lawyer, Michael J. Kaspar. Mr. Kaspar is a partner at Hinshaw and Culbertson in the loop and well-known around that state. Mr. Kaspar was clearly involved at a very early stage as procedures for collecting signatures and filing were scrupulously adhered to. Mr. Kaspar might also have advised our local folks that it would be wise to collect signatures at the last moment so that opposition to the drive does not have a chance to get organized. Indeed, the signatures were collected between 7/29/08 and 8/6/08.

Stellar legal representation is very expensive. So where did our, not terribly well-heeled, friends get the kale? White Lodging has clearly been targeted for union organizing by Unite-HERE. WL is not a union shop and this really drives the shrinking union base crazy. Unite-HERE was formed by a merger of textile workers and hotel employees unions. Local 1, Unite-HERE, is very large and has a budget of over $3,000,000 per year. Each year, unions are required to file LM2 forms with the U. S. Department of Labor, detailing their disbursements. The rank and file dues from local 1 have funded almost $1,000,000 in legal expenditures in 2007. Unfortunately, the LM2 form for 2008 does not have to be filed until 2009, so I can't prove that Unite-HERE paid Mr. Kaspar's bills but it does seem very likely.

That takes care of legal representation. No doubt, Mr. Kaspar informed our NIMBY hawks that the law requires signatures of at least 25 per cent of the registered voters in the precinct. Precinct voting records obtained from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners showed our friends that there were 600 odd voters in the 39th. Ok, now we need manpower.

Not to worry, local 1 Unite-HERE can help us on this as well. After all, there are plenty of union organizers on staff. Local 1, Unite-HERE has summer interns who are mostly students. The timing was perfect for this. Local 1 assigned staff member, Alexandra Canalos, and summer intern Francisco Herrera to the project. Ms. Canalos appears as a petition circulator on a number of the filed petition sheets. Mr. Herrera is a summer intern from a program at the Institute for "Interfaith Worker Justice" and appears on several forms.

It wouldn't do to have a large number of petitions circulated by outside labor organizers, so Ms. Canalos and Mr. Herrera enlisted the aid of various students. Omar Ramirez is a second year in the College. Alberto Roldan is a Northwestern U film major who didn't circulate any petitions but added his name to Mr. Ramirez's in a recent letter to the Herald. I haven't found any information about their other acquaintance, Luke Carmon who circulated petitions and added his name to the "labor oriented" Herald letter.

Petitions circulated by Canalos, Herrera, Ramirez and Carmon all used the same Notary Public, Marcia Nikoden. Ms. Nikodem lists an address very far from Hyde Park. All of the NIMBY circulators from Hyde Park used different notaries, most located in Hyde Park. So I think it is fair to conclude that the Canalos et al group worked together.

As we have pointed out in HPP, the idea of labor organizers working to deny jobs to hotel workers by plowing salt into the DH site is very strange. But, I am sure, our NIMBY strategists told them, "don't worry this is just a blackmail tactic. We will force WL to its knees." What the local NIMBYs didn't tell them is that once the petition is on the ballot, it is likely to pass. However, destruction of potential jobs is a subtle concept for labor union leaders who don't always represent their rank and file well.

College students can be a bit naive and they don't really have any long term affiliation with the neighborhood. "I had fun in the summer, beating up on evil White Lodging." It may not be clear to these folks that there really is no evidence that White Lodging has "questionable labor practices" and that their efforts could hurt future hotel workers.

But the bankroll of local 1 and the union manpower is not the whole story here. At least 100 regsitered voters in the 39th live in Vista Homes on Stony Island. To really be effective, our NIMBYs needed someone on the ground there. Allan Rechtschaffen was tailor-made for this purpose. A retired U of C prof, Mr. Rechtschaffen lives in Vista Homes and has some time on his hands. From his letter in the Herald, it seems clear to me that Mr. Rechtschaffen relishes his role as a thorn in the side of WL. He also seems to be genuinely peeved by what he feels is the lack of respect by WL and the reprsentatives of the U. However, he would have to admit that our NIMBYs hijacked the adgenda at meetings held in Vista Homes and at broader "community meetings." This made it very difficult to hold a dialogue.

In the end, this about upper middle class, mostly white, Hyde Parkers wanting to have more say in the Doctor's Hospital hotel development. It appears the local 1, Unite-HERE joins a long line of folks at the Unversity, local politicians, Chicago Park District employees, officers at the IHPA, and others who have gotten burned by our NIMBY handful.


Zig and Lou said...

Nice sleuthing Nick Charles.

Collin said...

Few things irk me as much as this issue.

Why does someone not make this debate absolutely clear: Crack house or hotel. Which would you rather have in your neighborhood?

As a resident of the precinct, I'll vote against the proposition, but I'll always fail to understand what, exactly, the argument is.

Richard Gill said...

Collin -
When you say you can't understand what the argument is, you hit the nail on the head. There is no "argument." The proposal to vote the 39th precinct dry is a sheer exercise in blackmail, as Peter Rossi says in this post.

Why do the petitioners engage in this blackmail? The hotel might reduce some of the views from Vista Homes. The hotel would mean Vista Homes would no longer have a private block all to themselves. Residents along Harper and Blackstone don't want a building in their line of sight. The union's rank and file have been duped by their own leaders into working for a proposition that is likely to mean no jobs instead of good jobs.

All of the arguments about drunken rowdiness, underage drinking, traffic, noise, congestion, parking, and Bar Mitzvahs run amok, are absolute nonsense. This is a sheer power play by certain residents who knowingly risk the welfare and vitality of this neighborhood because of their own narrow sensibilities.

Talk to your neighbors and try to make them understand what's at stake here.

mchinand said...

Is the Stony Island dorm in the 39th precinct?
It doesn't house a lot of students, but I think most students would vote against this ballot measure. It wouldn't affect current students but it's always a problem when family and friends come to visit and want a hotel room, especially for graduation. Plus, what college student doesn't want another drinking establishment nearby??

mchinand said...

Is congestion/traffic a serious issue considering it's right next to "largest science center in the Western Hemisphere" according the MSI website. I know that it's just part of NIMBYs standard bag of tricks but can they really try to get away with using it in this case?

LPB said...


You've put your finger on exactly the question that the anti-hotel obstructors don't or can't answer: what is the alternative to a hotel? This is a totally legitimate question, and I certainly haven't heard any any suggestions from them. At the moment, we've got an empty structure that's falling apart that seems to attract a lot of teenage boys who like to rollerblade or skateboard up and down the driveway. I'd love to understand their argument behind why letting a vacant building fall into further disrepair is better than re-using the site for a hotel/restaurant facility.

Richard Gill said...

Mchinand -
In my comment above, I said the NIMBY arguments are "absolute nonsense." I should've said they are "absolute smoke screens." Much of the day and night, Stony Island between the Midway and 56th Street more closely resembles an abandoned right-of-way than an arterial street. Yes, the NIMBYs can try to use any "argument" they want, but who's going to buy in? Nobody who really thinks about it.

Museum traffic mostly uses Cornell Drive/57th Drive as access/egress. What little museum traffic goes onto Stony is cars wanting to head west on 57th Street. But they can't; there's that big DO NOT ENTER sign perpetuated courtesy of other NIMBYs who want 57th Street all to themselves. Welcome to Hyde Park, all, but stay the hell away.

Tom said...

They're not even hiding the blackmail part anymore. In his letter to the editor in today's Herald, Hans Morsbach says exactly what Peter writes in this post. Not surprising, but I guess I didn't think they would be so blatant about it.

Of course the Herald editorial this week is just as bad...

Anonymous said...

This week's editorial/screed basically blames the 39th precinct "dry" petition on the University and their "recent flurry of real estate activity and stonewalling of those affected".

Do people really believe this???

Elizabeth Fama said...

Collin, can you please e-mail me at fama.elizabeth[at]gmail?

I may have a way that you can help squash the petition.

Any other residents of the 39th precinct who would like to help should feel free to contact me, too. But quickly, please.

Richard Gill said...

At the end of the August 5 community meeting, issues relating to the hotel project were left open, including hotel design, traffic studies, parking, shadow studies, jobs. The hospital-preservation issue was not fully resolved, but it was clear that the building was regarded as economically unfit for adaptive re-use. Note that preservation has nothing to do with hotel development per se.

The developer promised to return at a later date with a revised proposal. Nothing--nothing-- required the reckless and potentially disastrous threat of a dry-precinct proposal. The proposal is on the November ballot, and it's a ticking bomb.

White Lodging is not responsible for the dry-precinct petition. The University of Chicago is not responsible for the dry-precinct petition. The Alderman is not responsible for the dry-precinct petition. Those who conceived of the petition, those who promoted it, those who circulated it, and those who signed the petition are responsible for it.

If the proposition passes in November, thus crippling the economic prospects of this neighborhood, it will be very clear who did it.

chicago pop said...

Hans Morsbach is true to form in his LTE this week. Morsbach objecting in principle to a hotel is about as principled as Sarah Palin claiming that she cut the "Bridge to Nowhere."

Thanks but no thanks More-bucks!

It's really too bad that Morsbach didn't get a taste of his own medicine when he opened his Medici in Normal, right across from a new Marriott hotel that will pour loads of convention-goers into his beer-hall. It would have been nice if a local mob had worried about how Morsbach's business would cause public urination and traffic jams, and blocked the whole project.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, will never eat at Medici again. Their pizza has gone way downhill anyway.