Credit: Niramay Kachhadiya (Unsplash)

Mayor Brandon Johnson rejected the nomination of Marcel Bright to fill a vacancy on the 1st (Central) Police District Council last week, more than four months after the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) recommended him. Several people involved in the nominating process who spoke to the Weekly seemed caught off guard by the rejection.

The mayor’s decision leaves the 1st District council extremely short-handed for the time being. One member of the three-seat council is on medical leave, and the ongoing vacancy on the seat Bright would have filled means the sole other councilor will have to handle all meetings and other business by herself. 

Under the 2021 Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance that created the councils, whenever a vacancy occurs on a police district council (PDC), the other members nominate three people to the CCPSA, which recommends one to the mayor. State law ultimately makes it the mayor’s prerogative to fill any vacant elected position with whomever they choose. 

“I was genuinely surprised,” Bright said. “I thought that [the CCPSA] was who the decision mostly rested with, and the mayor was just signing off on it and supporting their decision. Now it sounds like they’re not as independent as the public was led to believe. You know, it sounds like old Chicago, instead of new, progressive Chicago.”

Bright most recently worked as former 1st District Congressman Bobby Rush’s deputy district director, and was 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2014. He has also worked in public affairs for FEMA and Cook County, and worked as a spokesperson and in other roles for the Chicago Police Department from 2001 to 2008. He ran for 4th District Cook County Commissioner in 2018, coming in third.

Each of the city’s twenty-two police district councils has three seats, and candidates were elected to them for the first time ever in February. Jamie Brown and Sarah Kammerer were the only candidates who ran in the 1st District, which includes the Loop, Near South Side, and Prairie Shores, leaving the third seat open.  

At its June meeting, the CCPSA unanimously voted to recommend Bright, who was one of three candidates Brown and Kammerer nominated earlier that month. According to sources familiar with the situation, the mayor’s office informed Bright that the mayor had rejected his candidacy last week. On Sunday, CCPSA president Anthony Driver said he still didn’t know enough about the mayor’s decision to comment. 

On Monday morning, Brown emailed the City Council to inform them the mayor had rejected Bright. “As of this time, the CCPSA nor District Council has received any official letter notice or reason for the rejection,” she wrote. “The next steps in this situation are currently unknown, due to the lack of communication and transparency from the mayor’s office, in addition to this being an unprecedented event.”

In response to questions emailed by the Weekly, a spokesperson for the mayor provided a statement Monday evening that said the ECPS ordinance does not require the mayor to appoint the CCPSA’s recommended candidate. The statement also said the mayor’s office “provided correspondence” to CCPSA commissioners to request they recommend one of the two other candidates the 1st District councilors originally nominated in June. It’s unclear why Johnson took four months to make that decision.

CCPSA executive director Adam Gross agreed that the mayor isn’t under any obligation to pick the commission’s recommended candidate. “But certainly the hope was to set up a process that would provide good candidates that encouraged the mayor to select people who had broader community support, as determined by this process,” he added.

Asked at a press conference Tuesday about his decision to reject Bright, Mayor Johnson said, “Look, there’s been a very deliberate, thorough process that we have undergone, and I’m committed to continuing to work with the CCPSA on coming up with a process that gets at the heart of what this entity wants…having individuals that speak to the values and the interests of the people of Chicago.”

Johnson added that he will continue to work with the CCPSA. “And, again, all of my decisions are quite intentional, and very deliberate, because it’s important that we get it right,” he said. “We know what it looks like when you don’t get it right. So we don’t want to repeat the past, especially because there’s such an opportunity here to demonstrate a real collaborative approach to bringing real accountability.”

The monthslong vacancy has been onerous for Brown and Kammerer, who have carried the 1st PDC’s business by themselves since their May swearing-in. Brown said her initial surprise turned into disappointment, and then concern about how the council will continue to function with the seat empty. “Given that they had taken so long, I thought it was just a matter of some bureaucratic, administrative procedures,” Brown said. “And once I found out I asked why, and no one could give me an answer.” 

The district councils’ brand-new status has meant that district councilors, most of whom have never held any public office before, are setting up policies and conducting public meetings while still learning the ropes of government. They’re paid $500 a month for serving and expected to work just twenty hours a month. Even for three-member councils, this has occasionally proved difficult. 

“It’s been very time consuming,” Brown said. “Sarah and I were committing probably forty hours a month. Now that we’re down to one [councilor] versus three, I’m really worried that I just won’t have the capacity to do what every other district has three people to do, especially in times of heightened concern about public safety.”  

The 1st PDC’s November meeting will be held Tuesday night at Harold Washington Library. Kammerer is on medical leave, and with the third seat remaining vacant, Brown will conduct the meeting by herself. And because there won’t be a quorum with just a single member of the council present, it won’t count as an official meeting. 

“The district councilors and the commission have all followed the steps that were outlined in the ordinance,” Brown said. “The mayor has rejected our recommendation without giving us any further advisement, and that simply goes against the spirit of transparency and open communication that the mayor campaigned on. He’s kind of just left us.”

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Jim Daley is an investigative journalist and senior editor at the Weekly.

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