By almost all accounts, Harry Mazzoni is a big pain in the neck.

And that’s the generous point of view. A lot of people who know him think he’s a kook. Why else, they argue, would Mazzoni, a 62-year-old widower and retired carpenter, wage a five-year vendetta over a parking garage?

That’s right. A one-man war fought over a parking garage. He’s been through two lawyers already, and has stood before four different courts; whatever allies he once had long ago deserted his cause.

Meanwhile, local business leaders and City Hall planners contend that as far as garages go, this one is an unqualified triumph that has saved a neighborhood from financial ruin.

“I’ll tell you about Harry Mazzoni,” says one of his many opponents. “He’s crazy. He’s got nothing else to do, I guess, but fight this battle. And it’s over. I tell you, it’s through.”

Well, it is true, Mazzoni is a bit pugnacious; and he’s not afraid to battle for causes apparently long lost.

What else? He swears a lot, and he tends to rant and rave a bit excessively about sundry conspiracies that, allegedly, link politicians, judges, and business leaders against him.

And yet, Harry Mazzoni may be right. Or, at the very least, he may have a point.

“You bet I have a point,” says Mazzoni, ebullient and brimming with vigor. “I’ve been screwed. Hear that? Screwed. This is a bum deal. And I plan to stick with it for as long as I can.”

At the heart of his beef is a little-known state statute that affords property owners (working through city councils) the right to tax themselves for special services.

Let’s say, for instance, a block of home owners in Lincoln Park decided to supplement city snow-removal efforts with a privately operated service. They could, acting through their alderman, have the City Council levy a tax (no higher than 1.5 percent of assessed property value) on every home within their block. The money would be controlled by a specially mandated service commission (the block club, no doubt) and spent sweeping streets, clearing alleys, removing snow drifts, etc.

A similar commission is what the Belmont-Central Chamber of Commerce wanted to create when, in 1982, they proposed a special service tax be assigned to operate a parking garage at 3140 N. Central Ave. on the northwest side.

“We had a problem,” says C. Paul Johnson, chief executive officer of the Colonial Bank & Trust Company, and former president of the chamber. “The Brickyard shopping mall had gone up about two miles from our district. They offered free parking. We were losing business to that mall, and we would have lost more if we did not act fast.”

Johnson and his colleagues decided to enact an idea that had been kicking around for almost a decade. They would build a garage, and offer free parking to attract shoppers.

The problem was not so much building the garage (the city’s Department of Economic Development pledged to finance construction with federal grants) as how to operate it. Security and maintenance would cost about $65,000 a year, the chamber estimated.

So, the chamber, in conjunction with local aldermen Thomas Cullerton, Louis Farina, and George Hagopian, proposed to create a special service district that, roughly, would run east-west along Belmont from Laramie to Austin, and north-south on Central from Henderson to George.

That was in June 1982. Mazzoni, who owns a storefront on Belmont Avenue (he rents it to an auto parts store) at the western end of the district, heard about the proposed garage at a public hearing and decided the community did not need it or the tax.

For starters, he says, there already is a parking lot — just across the street from his property, coincidentally — with capacity for about 200 cars.

“A free garage on Central is only going to hurt businesses further west,” says Mazzoni. “If people have to choose between parking at meters and parking for free, what will they do? They’ll park for free and the businesses further away will suffer.

“You can say, there’s only a few blocks between the two parking garages and the parking lot, OK. But why build a new parking garage if you already have a lot in the area? Why not take out the parking meters if you want to make them free?”

On top of that, he notes, there is parking along the street, and some businesses (particularly the fast food restaurants) operate their own parking areas.

“It will be a white elephant,” Mazzoni predicted at the public hearing. “Why should the taxpayers be stuck with the bill? We don’t need this garage.”

The chamber maintained that removing parking meters would force the city, through loss of parking revenue, to subsidize a service that local merchants should pay for themselves.

In addition, it was the eastern edge of the district that needed parking the most. At least two stores — a Goldblatt’s and a Walgreen — had threatened to leave unless more parking was built. A snazzy, well-lit, guarded, three-story garage would induce them, and other businesses, to stay.

The City Council apparently agreed, for they unanimously voted to create the district, thus sending Mazzoni and his supporters to the rule book, where they discovered that the tax could be voided by “a petition signed by at least 51 percent of the electors and by at least 51 percent of the owners of record of the land [in the district].”

(It has been argued, by the way, that Mazzoni falls into neither category. He lives outside the district, and the property he controls is in the name of his deceased wife.)

So Mazzoni and his backers went out to gather petitions. They were an intrepid crew, for the task confronting them was monumental.

To begin with, they had no map of the district from which to work. The boundaries were stated in the jargon of property surveyors — a lingo few, if any, laymen understand.

On top of that, 98, or 42 percent, of the district’s 234 parcels of property were held by bank trusts. That would mean tracking down, through legal guardians, the names of the real property owners, whose identities were shielded.

“That’s a tough assignment,” says Mazzoni. “Sometimes the legal guardians don’t get back to you right away. And sometimes the property owner is out of town. So you have to wait until the legal guardian can get them the petition and they sign it. And there were a dozen or so different banks involved. And we had to do this all in 60 days.”

But they persisted, and on August 1, 1982, they marched into the city clerk’s office, petitions in hand. James Rome, than an assistant corporation counsel, reviewed the petitions, raised a few objections (which Mazzoni answered), and sided with Mazzoni.

All of which outraged the chamber of commerce (not to mention officials at the Department of Economic Development, who had proposed the garage as a boon to the local economy). They got hold of Mazzoni’s petitions, looked them over, and went to work. First they rounded up some voters and property owners who revoked their signatures to Mazzoni’s petitions, though not enough to drop his total below the 50.1 percent threshold.

And then they unveiled their strongest weapon–two courtyard apartment buildings, one on the corner of Wellington and Central, the other at Linder and Belmont. Mazzoni assumed they were not part of the district. Thus, he did not solicit the signatures of residents who lived there.

Technically, perhaps, he was right. After all, the mailing addresses of these tenants were not in the district.

But sides of these corner buildings did indeed border the special district. Legally, therefore, their residents belonged among the list of voters Mazzoni must petition.

That’s what the chamber argued, anyway, and Rome agreed. He added several names to the list of eligible voters, and then wrote Mazzoni a letter. The signatures you have gathered, Rome wrote Mazzoni, amount to only 45 percent of the voters, and the 60-day deadline for petition gathering has passed. Sorry Harry, the case is closed and you lose.

Now it was Mazzoni’s turn to be outraged.

“This, to me, was the biggest low-down trick of them all,” he says four years after the fact, still snarling at the memory. “Can Jane Byrne call in more voters after an election if she doesn’t like the fact that Harold Washington won? Huh? Can she? Of course she can’t. You can’t change the vote after the results. That’s cheating. And that’s what they did to me. They cheated.”

So he sued, employing as his lawyer Nancy Kaszak, a downtown attorney known for her expertise in election law.

“He’s got a good case,” says Kaszak, who no longer represents Mazzoni. “The whole problem with special service districts is very complex. The law needs to be looked at. It’s tough figuring out what is and isn’t in a district. Then you have 60 days to round up all your signatures. That’s not much time. I’d say your chance of beating a special district is about a thousand to one. You’d have to raise a lot of money to fight it in court. And then there’s the issue of fairness and impartiality.”

By that she means the role of the corporation counsel. In this case, Rome initially acted as the impartial judge, refereeing a dispute that pitted Mazzoni against Rome’s own employer, the city of Chicago. For his part, Rome, now in private practice, contends he was impartial and fair.

“Harry lost,” says Rome. “That’s all there is to it. He gave it his best try, but the rules were against him. I followed the rules, and that’s all there is to it.”

Mazzoni, of course, has a different point of view. He insists that Rome was biased against him from the start.

“How could he [Rome] be fair?” Mazzoni says. “His boss is the city. And the city, meaning the City Council and the Department of Economic Development, wanted that garage. They wanted the special service district.”

One fact is clear. By the strange rules of the game, Rome was forced to play two roles. He acted as judge in ruling against Mazzoni, and then as the city’s advocate in defending against Mazzoni’s appeal.

In 1984 Mazzoni’s suit came before Circuit Court judge Earl Arkiss, who, in effect, told Mazzoni that he had filed the wrong kind of case. The judge advised Mazzoni to pay the tax and then sue to recover, instead of suing to nullify the tax altogether on grounds that his petition drive had blocked it — which is what Mazzoni had done. And with that Arkiss dismissed the case.

At which point, Kaszak, displeased, she says, because Mazzoni had not paid her, left the case.

By this time, Mazzoni’s coplaintiffs had given up, resigning themselves to a tax that amounted, on the average, to an extra $175 a year. No matter to Mazzoni. He fought on.

At one point he filed a pro se brief (meaning he would act as his own attorney) requesting a restraining order against the tax.

The case came before Judge Reginald Holzer (who would later be convicted on charges of extorting cash from lawyers). And so there Mazzoni stood, his best corduroy coat a bit ragged at the edges — in a courtroom filled with hotshot attorneys dressed in silk ties, suits, and red suspenders.

“Holzer looked at my complaint then tossed it out,” says Mazzoni, smiling ruefully. “He said it wasn’t filed right. That I hadn’t cited a cause of action. He said, ‘Your petition is faulty, and I don’t have time to teach you the law. Next case.'”

Next Mazzoni tried exercising some political clout, which led to a behind-the-scenes sit-down with Alderman Roman Pucinski.

“I called Pucinski and said do something about the garage. He says, ‘But, Harry, it’s not in my ward.’ I say, ‘Listen, I live in your ward.’ But that didn’t convince him.

“Well, this was at the time Pucinski was making it big in the papers with the Arthur Rubloff pictures. You know, the case where Rubloff donated some paintings to the city, but they were missing. So I say to him, ‘Hey, Pucinski, is Arthur Rubloff in your ward?’ Oh, that got him. Rubloff lived on the lakefront. So Pucinski set up a meeting in his office. Me, Rome, Pucinski, and some of his aides. Nothing came of it.”

Mazzoni tried to arrange a meeting with Rome’s boss, James Montgomery, then the corporation counsel, but had no luck. One day, he happened to chance upon Montgomery in an elevator in City Hall. It was his big chance to win Montgomery over. But tact has never been one of Mazzoni’s strong points.

“I gave it to Montgomery good, right there in the elevator,” Mazzoni recalls. “I told him he has a bunch of dishonest lawyers in his office. But he just walked away.”

And then, in 1985, Mazzoni got a break. Lawyers for the Better Government Association decided to take his case pro bono. They took the Arkiss ruling to the Illinois Appellate Court, where once again Mazzoni lost on a technicality.

In the course of his investigation, Mazzoni had gathered written statements (which he thought would stand up in court as official affidavits) from property owners. They had testified that several tenants whom the city had counted as eligible voters were not residents of the district at the time of the first public hearing in 1982. Here was damning evidence, suggesting that the threshold of signatures Mazzoni needed was lower than the city insisted.

“But the judges ruled that three affidavits Harry had gathered from voters were improperly drawn,” says Terrance Norton, the BGA attorney who represented Mazzoni.

“Two of the affidavits are signed by affiants who do not profess to have personal knowledge of the matters attested to,” the court wrote. “They do not claim to be owners or managers of the properties in question, nor do they state any other basis for knowing that the individuals named in their affidavits were not residents of the area at the relevant time.”

Norton pointed out that the affiants were, indeed, owners of the properties in question and that Mazzoni had not indicated this was the case because he did not understand proper legal procedures for drawing up affidavits. There are, Norton continued, affidavits in which these facts are properly stipulated. Norton then asked the court to reconsider its ruling.

But the court refused and the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the BGA to decide whether to start all over, as Judge Arkiss suggested, or to chuck the case.

“We are going to try and find a lawyer to handle this for him,” says Norton. “We think Harry is right.”

And so it is that Harry Mazzoni awaits his fate, committed to a struggle that almost everyone else regards as a losing proposition.

“The garage is great; it saved the area,” says C. Paul Johnson. “This is something that other chambers of commerce want to do. Harry Mazzoni doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“The first special service district was the State Street Mall and Belmont-Central was the second,” adds Robert Janega, the assistant corporation counsel who inherited the case from Rome. “We’ve done five more service districts since then, and I’m not aware of any legal contests. They seem to be working well.”

“Let them say what they want,” Mazzoni counters. “Businessmen, politicians, I don’t need them. What I need is a lawyer, willing to take this thing to court. I’m not crazy, I’m dedicated. Oh no, I’m not crazy. I’m right.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.