A deal to rent parking spots at two elementary schools in La Villita during Riot Fest, a music festival in Douglass Park, has come as a surprise and an inconvenience to local residents.
In a contract obtained by South Side Weekly, Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy and Telpochcalli School, which share the parking lot, agreed to rent the lot to Jose Cardenas, the brother of Alderman George Cardenas (12th), for the annual weekend private festival in the neighboring community.
Jose Cardenas agreed to pay a $3,000 fee evenly split between both schools while charging attendees $10 to $30 for parking spots and forcing residents, who typically have free access to the parking lot when school is out of session, to park elsewhere. Ald. Cardenas denied that he knew about the contract, but said he spoke to his brother to “dissuade him from doing that.”
Jose Cardenas did not respond to the Weekly’s request for comment.
Meanwhile residents of Marshall Blvd, where the schools are located, say they were never warned by the school that the parking lot would be off-limits during Riot Fest. Instead, they found out through flyers posted by activists around the perimeter of the school warning festival-goers not to use the parking lot because the money would be funneled to the alderman’s family.
“They ultimately abused their power to sell the neighborhood and we don’t even know where the money went,” said Maria Rivera, a resident of Little Village who lives across the street from the schools.
In a statement provided to the Weekly, Chicago Public Schools said that they were aware of the contract with Jose Cardenas’ company, but that they weren’t obligated to notify nearby residents and that the lot isn’t for public use.
The individual schools that share the lot negotiated the terms of the contract. At a September 2 Telpochcalli local school council meeting, LSC members initially did not approve of the contract because of lack of communication from Cardenas in previous rentals. In 2019, Jose Cardenas allegedly didn’t notify Telpochcalli that he was using the parking lot with just the approval of the Saucedo LSC.
This year, Telpochcalli members said they felt the decision was rushed and that they had no choice but to approve the rental, since the Saucedo LSC had already approved it. Members ultimately voted unanimously in favor.
On August 26, members of the Saucedo local school council voted to approve the contract 7-1. The lone “no” vote was cast by the LSC’s community representative, Miguel Blancarte, Jr.
“My concern was the well-being of the community,” Blancarte said. “Community members in the past haven’t enjoyed having the parking lot rented during Riot Fest because of the disturbance it does to the community and those that live en-route to Douglass Park.”
Blancarte said he was not aware that the parking lot was being rented to Ald. Cardenas’s brother or how much he was charging attendees. “I think there should be more transparency when there’s an event coming into a community,” he said. “I think there should be transparency on who’s putting together a festival. I didn’t know about this and I’m not sure if the principals knew either.”
A spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Ethics said they couldn’t provide an opinion on whether Ald. Cardenas violated the code of ethics, but did say that the law “does not per se prohibit City officials or employees or their family members from contracting with sister agencies like the CPS.”
In a heated Twitter exchange with Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) over the parking lot deal, Ald. Cardenas tweeted, “I suggest you get the facts straight here. Call the principals!”
During a budget hearing at City Council the next day, Ald. Rodriguez-Sanchez said Ald. Cardenas threatened her outside the chambers for tweeting about the parking lot deal. “He asked me to talk about what happened on Twitter,” she said. “He said I didn’t have the facts and that he didn’t know about his brother’s contract.” Then, she says, he began yelling at her and said, “there are consequences to what you’re doing.”
Ald. Cardenas said he approached Ald. Rodriguez-Sanchez about her comments so that there was a mutual understanding that he “had nothing to do” with the parking lot deal.
Telpochcalli principal Tamara Witzl and Saucedo principal Virginia Hiltz did not respond to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time Ald. Cardenas has been under fire for mixing family business with politics.
Last year, the Sun-Times reported that Ald. Cardenas was named in a lawsuit by a Chicago doctor accusing his business partner of using company funds to lavish the Southwest Side alderman with campaign contributions, an expensive watch, and trips to Miami and Los Angeles. The article also showed that Ald. Cardenas recommended that the company—Omni Medical Student Training—hire his brother, Jose Cardenas, to be their accountant which they ultimately did.
In 2009, the Tribune reported that several council members including Ald. Cardenas were using taxpayer dollars from a secret payroll fund to hire their relatives. They found that Cardenas was using the fund to pay his father for ward assistance.
His father is still employed through the City as an aldermanic aide for Cardenas’ ward, according to the Chicago Data Portal.
Ald. Cardenas intends to run for Board of Review in 2022, a three-member board that oversees property tax appeals. His current term in the City Council is up in 2023; he has not yet indicated whether he intends to run for reelection.
“He’s made a lot of promises but fails to keep them,” Rivera said. “More than anything, the community has been deceived and we need a change.”
Kelly Garcia is a freelance journalist covering education and was previously a civic reporting fellow for City Bureau and a summer reporting fellow for Injustice Watch. She last wrote for the Weekly about special education students who were left behind during COVID.