Greising: A Note for the Mayor: As We Judge History, History Will Judge Us

Reformer—or open-government reprobate? If Lightfoot doesn't begin delivering on her transparency promises soon, the answer will be obvious when the history of her administration is cast.

Ulysses S. Grant Monument in Chicago, IL(Image by nitli from Pixabay)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Years ago, as a young Lincoln Park resident, I often enjoyed exercise on what I called my "statues run."

The loop took me south toward a bronze Robert Cavelier de LaSalle, then circled a pensive Abraham Lincoln before a northward jog passed a standing Benjamin Franklin and a regal Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

"Explorer," I would think, passing LaSalle. "Freed the slaves" for Lincoln, and "Founding father" for Franklin. "Titanic Teutonic," I'd whisper for Goethe, likely still understating his impact.

These days, someone rounding that loop might well put it this way: "Colonialist" for LaSalle; "White supremacist" for Lincoln; "Enslaver" for Franklin; and "Imperialist" for Goethe.

History is never simple. And that's why Chicago, like many cities, is reconsidering its statues and what they say about our history and culture. It's a complex, volatile undertaking, both necessary and unpredictable.

Tensions are high. A violent clash with police erupted last July over a protest group's efforts to tear down a Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park. Mayor Lori Lightfoot then removed the Columbus statue in the dead of the night—temporarily, she said then.

Chicago is not alone. Ever since the Charlottesville, Va., standoff over a mounted Robert E. Lee led to the killing of an anti-Nazi protester in 2017, the modern-day argument over reckoning with our past has become a national obsession. From San Francisco to New York, monuments have been debated and defaced, removed and reinforced.

After the Grant Park melee in July, Lightfoot appointed a commission to advise on the future of Chicago's 500-plus statues and monuments. Their removal or retention is at stake.

Lightfoot promised an "inclusive and democratic public dialogue" about the explorers and colonialists, enslavers and abolitionists, freedom fighters and terrorists whose busts, bodies, horses and hats are frozen in time in parks and pedways across the city.

If ever there were a need for an open public decision-making process, the Monuments Project Advisory Committee was it. But the group's early work has been anything but open.

"What's said here, stays here" are words that opened one early meeting. The group identified 41 problematic monuments—a list selected by city staff, not the artists and experts convened to consult on the matter, records indicate.

Six months of meetings produced a mere 24 pages of vaguely worded minutes and notes in which no attendance was taken, no other records kept.

We know all this thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by Better Government Association reporter David Jackson. His reporting raises questions about the monument commission's compliance with the state's Open Meetings Act.

It's yet another known flouting of Open Meetings by the Lightfoot administration.

Last summer, after a weekend of riots and looting following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Lightfoot held at least three virtual meetings of the City Council without public notice or participation. The BGA sued over the alleged Open Meetings violation, and the mayor promised not to do it again—but authorized the city law department to keep contesting the lawsuit.

That's the same law department that went to court to block WBBM-TV/Channel 2 from airing a video it properly obtained of a botched police raid on the home of Anjanette Young, when the warrant listed a different address. The city's top lawyer lost his job over the effort to block the broadcast.

And to think: Lightfoot took office nearly two years ago promising to run the most open and accountable government in city history.

It seemed credible at the time. In addition to her bold service on the Chicago Police Board, bucking Mayor Rahm Emanuel's efforts to minimize the problem of rogue policing, she had developed a reputation as a good-government advocate. She even served on the board of the BGA.

Reformer—or open-government reprobate? If Lightfoot doesn't begin delivering on her transparency promises soon, the answer will be obvious when the history of her administration is cast.