Public access TV’s running out of money, and Mayor Daley’s against the proposal that would save it. But public access backers have turned to a surprising source for help: 50th Ward alderman Bernard Stone, who’s not exactly known for his independence. Stone’s faithfully followed every mayor–except for Harold Washington–since he came to the council back in 1973. So why the current rebellion? Could it be that the alderman is finally listening to his reform-minded son Jay Stone, who cohosts a public access talk show?
Under the terms of an agreement with the city, cable service providers such as Comcast and RCN are obligated to turn over a portion of their service fees to Chicago Access Network Television, or CAN TV, which uses the money to run its noncommercial, community-generated programming. The problem, according to Berny Stone, is that there’s no backup financing when one of the cable companies falls behind on its payments, as has happened with RCN twice in the last four years. At the moment RCN owes CAN TV about $600,000. If the station doesn’t get it, CAN TV will have to lay off staff and cut back programming. And so far the city’s efforts to get the company to pay up have been unsuccessful–RCN is headed toward Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Mayor Daley says he supports CAN TV. But he doesn’t support it enough to fund it directly out of the city’s corporate budget. So CAN TV and its backers turned to Stone.
“Public access does a tremendous job for the people of Chicago–I call it the voice of the people,” Stone says. “It’s the only place where anybody can get on and talk, and talk uncensored. You can say anything, and that’s the beauty of it. Sometimes that means aldermen like me get in all kinds of trouble. People say, ‘How dare they use the language they do!’ Well, it’s ’cause they talk like people on the street. People from churches get on there, and people from the street get on there.”
Currently CAN TV makes do with a $2.2 million budget. “This is a pittance for that industry,” says Stone. “Two million means what? A half a minute on Friends? A half a minute on the Super Bowl? We have to have some perspective.”
In April, Stone came up with a solution for CAN TV’s budget woes: fund it directly out of the city’s $5 billion corporate budget. “That way there’s no uncertainty year to year if the cable providers don’t pay,” he says. Stone bounced his idea off one of Daley’s aides. But Daley keeps a tight rein on the corporate budget–it’s the only one he controls directly. If he limits expenses he can tell voters he’s keeping taxes low, even as all the other municipal entities–parks and schools, for example–raise them.
“I told [the aide] what I was going to do and he said, ‘Don’t introduce it,'” says Stone. “I said, ‘Look, it’s only $2 million out of $5 billion–it’s peanuts.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but we don’t want to take it out of the city budget.’ Well, of course–Mayor Daley doesn’t ever want stuff to come out of the city budget.”
Despite the aide’s admonition, Stone introduced the measure at the City Council’s meeting on May 5. It was sent to the finance committee, chaired by 14th Ward alderman Edward Burke. “Ed Burke’s a friend of mine, and I don’t think it will be buried,” Stone says.
His newfound independence has caught his fellow aldermen off guard. Stone’s been known to blow his stack (one of his most memorable City Council eruptions came in 1986, when he angrily called Congressman Luis Gutierrez, then an alderman, a “little pip-squeak”). But he’s not known for introducing legislation against Daley’s wishes.
Alderman Stone says he felt compelled to act because he “loves” public access TV (“I watch it all the time”) and would hate to see it wither. “I don’t want to make a big deal about this,” says Stone. “I wouldn’t say I’m defying the mayor. Why do you have to use that word? Let’s say we disagree.”
In any regard, Stone’s independence on cable puts him more in line with Jay, who typically finds himself at odds with his father on local matters. A 45-year-old therapist specializing in hypnosis, Jay Stone advocates election-code reforms that would erase the advantages that have made Daley loyalists like Berny virtually impossible to unseat. Against his father’s wishes Jay ran a long-shot campaign against 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak last year. Not only did the elder Stone support Matlak–he lambasted his son for running, calling him an “embarrassment” who “doesn’t know what he’s doing” and saying that he had “absolutely no understanding of politics.” From Berny’s perspective the proper way for a rookie to run for alderman is the way he did: join a ward organization, put in your time, then seek the organization’s backing when a vacancy opens. Plus, Matlak’s mentor, committeeman Terry Gabinski, is one of Berny’s oldest political friends. “I told Jay, ‘Terry’s a good friend,’ and Jay ran anyway,” says Berny. “He feels Matlak’s a do-nothing alderman, and to a certain extent Jay may be right. I don’t know. I don’t live in the 32nd Ward.”
According to Berny, Jay allowed himself to be talked into running by allies of First Ward alderman Manny Flores, who was challenging incumbent Jesse Granato. “Jay’s problem is that he believes this stuff–he thinks it’s for real. Some guys told him, ‘We’ll support you.’ Yeah, sure. They just wanted him to run so that Terry [Gabinski] would have to use all of his troops to help Matlak. Jay was a tool. They used him to defeat Granato.”
Jay Stone got only 26 percent of the vote against Matlak. But Matlak outspent him by a margin of four to one.
The father and son remain close, regularly debating issues over dinner. “It’s true, my father never wanted me to run–he let me know that from the start,” Jay says. “A funny story about that. On the first Saturday after I announced my candidacy my dad and I went to a Chinese restaurant. After dinner I pulled out a fortune cookie that said ‘You are independent politically.’ I showed him the fortune and said, ‘Dad, there is a god.’ And my dad said to me, ‘Yes, but God doesn’t work in Chinese restaurants.'”
Jay Stone says he holds no grudges against his father. “I take his criticism as that of one politician criticizing another, not as a father criticizing his son. He said I was an embarrassment and that I didn’t know what I was doing. I took that to mean I didn’t know that what I was doing could hurt him, Berny, through political retribution. In politics you want as many friends as possible. My dad really was against me running, I think, because he didn’t want Gabinski and Matlak to blame him.”
Did Jay convince Berny to break from Daley on cable funding? Both Jay and Berny say no. “We don’t even talk about it,” says Berny.
So what does Jay think of Berny’s sudden streak of independence on public access funding? He’s not impressed. “I think it could be a ploy,” he says. “You know how it goes. Aldermen front ideas for the mayor all the time. So Daley has my dad introduce the idea and he sees the response. If the response is favorable–if they get letters pouring in saying, ‘Please save CAN TV’–it passes. If they don’t get a favorable response it quietly dies. So really all the pressure’s still on public access supporters to show their support. This stuff happens all the time. Aldermen take the heat and Daley’s protected. Then Daley repays the alderman for their loyalty at a later point with some favor or another. I’ve actually learned a lot about Chicago politics from watching my dad.”
Somebody’s Gonna Be Mad
For years residents in Bucktown have unsuccessfully pleaded with Alderman Ted Matlak to do something to curb untrammeled development in the neighborhood. Now, ironically, Matlak himself will feel the blow: he’s being displaced from his service office at 2148 N. Damen. The building’s owner wants to sell it to a couple of developers, who plan to tear it down and build a four-story condo building. What gives the story a twist is that the owner looking to sell is Dawn Rosten, daughter of former congressman Dan Rostenkowski, one of Matlak’s mentors. And the developer she wants to sell it to is Joseph Annunzio, great-nephew of former congressman Frank Annunzio, one of Rosty’s old pals. “Matlak told us, ‘I’m being evicted,'” says Steve Lipe, president of the Bucktown Community Organization, a local civic group. “He basically said he’d feel better if he didn’t have to move, but he can’t do anything about it.”
Actually, that’s not true. The deal’s contingent on a zoning change that needs Matlak’s approval as alderman. Matlak can kill the project if he rejects Annunzio’s request to upgrade the zoning.
The zoning proposal forces Matlak to choose between his old boss and the community. If he OKs the zoning change Rosten can make more money on the property–the higher zoning would allow more units to be built, making it more attractive to the developers. On the other hand, many locals oppose the zoning change. They think the current ward office, with its old-style Victorian turret and fine copper detailing, gives the block some class. The building Annunzio and his business partner, Jakub Kosiba, want to build is a dull, brown four-story brick structure with retail on the ground floor and condos upstairs. “Go to the corner of Webster and Damen and see what they’ve built there. It’s almost a mirror image of what they want to build at Matlak’s building,” says Lipe. “We like the old building–it’s more in scale with the area.”
The property at Webster and Damen was also at the center of a controversial zoning change involving the Rostenkowski family. In that case Rostenkowski and his wife, LaVerne, sold two vacant lots to Annunzio and Kosiba. The developers then got the variance they needed to build a four-story building. But contrary to city regulations, there was never any public notice given of the zoning change, which passed in August 2003. “There was no community presentation about the zoning change on Webster,” says Lipe. “There wasn’t even a sign on the property saying ‘zoning change sought.'” Instead residents learned about the details from a February article by Greg Hinz in Crain’s Chicago Business.
In part because of the fallout over the deal on Webster, Matlak’s been more open with residents about the one involving his office. According to Lipe, he asked Annunzio and Kosiba to meet with the Bucktown group. “We appreciate that they met with us and showed us their building plans,” says Lipe. “But we still think the old building’s better.”
At the moment Matlak says he has no position on the matter. “Right now it’s in the community process,” he says. Will he stand up to his old boss and turn down the zoning change? It may be in Matlak’s and the developers’ best interest to do so, even if they don’t realize it. “They have an asset with the old ward building,” says Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. “I think the condos would be more desirable if they kept the original building. I can see the marketing: ‘Legendary congressman’s office can now be your home.’ Use your imagination–there are so many ways to have your cake and eat it too.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.