For the third day in a row, numerous alderman called on officials from the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) to preserve 311 employees’ jobs, while Department heads tried to reframe the privatization plan as a first, necessary step to bring the system up to speed. Aldermen also sought answers on new crossing guard responsibilities hoisted on on the Department by the Mayor’s Chicago Police Department shuffle, and aggressively confronted the Department’s Executive Director over minority hiring and contracts.
Afternoon attendance: Joe Moreno (1), Pat Dowell (3), Will Burns (4), Leslie Hairston (5), Gregory Mitchell (7), Michelle Harris (8), Sue Sadlowski-Garza (10), Patrick Daley Thompson (11), Raymond Lopez (15), Toni Foulkes (16), David Moore (17), Willie Cochran (20), Michael Scott Jr. (24), Danny Solis (25), Walter Burnett Jr. (27), Jason Ervin (28), Chris Taliaferro (29), Ariel Reboyras (30), Milly Santiago (31), Scott Waguespack (32), Deb Mell (33), Carrie Austin (34), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35), Emma Mitts (37), Nicholas Sposato (38), Marge Laurino (39), Pat O’Connor (40), Anthony Napolitano (41), Brendan Reilly (42), Michele Smith (43), Tom Tunney (44), John Arena (45), James Cappleman (46), Ameya Pawar (47), Harry Osterman (48), Joe Moore (49), Debra Silverstein (50)
311 employers sporting green AFSCME Council 31 buttons that read “Privatization NO!” stood outside Council chambers, while inside, aldermen like Pat Dowell (3) testified she wanted tech upgrades, but not at the expense of staffers’ jobs and knowledge base.
“It’s important to invest in the equipment, but also to invest in the workers and to maintain them over time,” Dowell (3) told OEMC’s Executive Director, Gary Schenkel.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24) and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38) backed Dowell up, saying they didn’t want to see 311 jobs outsourced to the suburbs, another state, or even another country. Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41) called it a matter of civic pride to keep the jobs local, and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) suggested private operators would seek profit over public safety.
“Whatever model we look at will have extreme Chicago oversight and involvement. It won’t be just a hand-off. That’s not the concept whatsoever… it may look very much like the same. We set the bar very high.” Schenkel said. The RFP would serve as a total re-examination of the system, and many questions about staffing and technological improvements would stay unanswered until bids come back in, he said. Some aldermen mistakenly believed there was already an RFP out to bid. Schenkel told aldermen he expects OEMC and DoIT to co-release one in 2016. Under Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s (6) privatization ordinance (that’s still awaiting passage), the change would then come back to council for a vote, he said.
Aldermen might’ve been thinking of the Request for Proposal the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) put out in Fall 2013 to renovate 311’s technology. Responses to that RFP gave the department the estimated $25-30 million upgrade price tag they’ve repeated throughout this week’s hearings.
The 2013 request called for a system, “not only replace the City’s current technology, but to provide a holistic, transformative solution” to help the City provide constituent services, to “fundamentally transform” the way the City interacts with residents on a new system “that will rival best-in-class private sector offerings, such as Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Amazon.com.” Schenkel repeated the hope for a new, “holistic” system on Wednesday.
“What’s the difference between us doing it and someone else doing it?” Budget Committee Vice Chair Jason Ervin (28) asked. There is a 311 call center in his ward.
“That’s what we hope to find out through the RFP process,” Schenkel said. “The system we have now is 16 years old and our yearly maintenance cost is $1.7 to $2.3 million a year.” An annual lease of a CSR from a private company might be a better way to keep up with fast moving technology, and keep costs down.
Mayor Emanuel gave the Sun-Times a higher estimated cost to modernize 311 than commissioners suggested this week: $40 to $50 million over the next three years. He suggested privatization is the City’s best option, given its fiscal straits, telling the Editorial Board, “Doing it with a private operator is a better way to do it. We don’t have that type of resources, so I’m being upfront about it.”
The 2013 RFP called for leveraging existing call center resources, a standardization of call-taking policies and procedures, and a revamp of the roughly 600 codes 311 uses to track requests. The switch-over was planned to begin with a pilot program in 311 and the Department of Water Management, then spread to service requests for “foundational” departments: Buildings, Family and Support Services, Transportation, and Streets and Sanitation, then eventually to the rest of City services.
CROSSING GUARD CHANGES
Aldermen also spent a large portion of OEMC’s hearing asking about crossing guard reforms. As part of Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to move more than 300 CPD desk officers back to the street, the police department will transfer responsibility for hiring and supervising crossing guards to OEMC. The Mayor explained the move in a press release on September 20, “While civilians are already hired to serve as crossing guards, we expect this move to increase police manpower during the school year when CPD typically backfills crossing guard vacancies with police officers.”
“We’re using this first year to stabilize the whole operation,” he told Ald. Pat O’Connor (40), who suggested guards should live where they work. There are 806 crossing guard posts out there, and nearly 100 vacancies to fill, Schenkel says. “Maybe we need 910, maybe we need 750. According to CPS, those have not been reviewed comprehensively in quite some time. So we’ll be doing that as part of our first year stabilization and transition.”
ALD. MORENO CONFRONTS SCHENKEL ON MINORITY HIRING
The most heated moment of the day came at the end of the OEMC session, more than 2 hours in, when Ald. Joe Moreno (1) called Schenkel “rude and insensitive,” and later, a modern day racist. Continuing a common line of questioning at these hearings about minority hiring, Moreno asked, “Has this administration, has the Mayor or his staff or your liaison to the Mayor ever had a discussion with you about hiring numbers in terms of Hispanics and/or African Americans?”
Schenkel replied, “I’ve never had a conversation, nor have we been directed to hire any ethnicity, nor do I pay particular attention to that. I look for the best qualified candidate. I prefer to think that I’m colorblind, and I’d like to stay that way.” Moreno ended his questioning there.
But when Ald. Walter Burnett (27) later enquired about contracts awarded to African American bidders, Moreno jumped back in. There was some confusion between Burnett, Schenkel, and Vice Chair Jason Ervin about the exact percentage Burnett was looking for. Ald. Moreno spoke up, “This Commissioner said that he didn’t put importance on hiring of Latinos or African Americans, that he’s colorblind. So I would assume that he has the same position when he’s doing contracts, so I might be able to save your time and your questioning because of his rude and insensitive and his out of place comment to me, which is going to be taken up with the Mayor’s staff.”
As Vice Chair Ervin tried to interrupt, Moreno audibly slammed his microphone back down. Ald. Emma Mitts (37) went to speak with him, and he circled around chambers after the OEMC meeting concluded, talking with other aldermen, including those in the Latino Caucus. He later posted on Facebook, “Many in Latino & African American community see this kind of statement as modern racism.”
According to budget hearing documents shared Wednesday, roughly 37% of OEMC’s spending is on MBE/WBE contracts. 90% of its new hires, 72% of its department employees, and more than half of its department managers are non-white.