Aldermen Cleaning up Chicago One Street at a Time (VIDEO)

July 2, 2010

Mark Saxenmeyer, FOX News Chicago

Forget dirty politics, they target filthy streets.

Chicago – How “hands-on” is your alderman? Does he or she ever leave the office and try to fix things–literally–on your street, in your neighborhood? Some say getting “down-n-dirty” is simply the best way to get a real feel for their constituents’ problems. Others say it’s nothing more than political grandstanding.

And some folks at City Hall say no matter how noble their intentions, a few aldermen might just be stepping on the wrong toes with their efforts.

32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, however, marches to the beat of his own clean-up. For starters, he doesn’t like the sight of abandoned bikes and clogged sewer drains in his community. And so, he and his staff hit the streets to saw off old locks from rusted bikes and dispose of them. Same for clearing the sewers. Tools in his hand, Waguespack and staff dig and probe their way through the muck in the gutters of the 32nd, removing garbage and debris, at least a couple times a week.

Aldermen Cleaning up Chicago One Street at a Time:

“Sometimes three times a week,” the alderman corrected, while working on a drain near Belmont and Leavitt. Decked out in work clothes and a baseball hat, the fancier duds he dons for council sessions were stored back at his office.

For Waguespack, digging in the dirt is his way of responding to his constituents’ needs with a truly personal touch.

“I have found so many drains that were completely blocked over and have not been cleaned in a decade, and we are still finding them. I mean there are thousands of them throughout the ward,” said Waguespack.

Yet this kind of work is typically the responsibility of the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, or Water and Sewers, or Transportation. Waguespack simply shrugs, dismissively.

“The residents and businesses can’t wait. They are getting flooded, they are getting the smell, the gunk and everything else,” he explained. “So I just say, ‘fine!,’ throw on my gloves, and ‘let’s go do it’.”

It’s an admirable attitude, but Waguespack has also been reprimanded by City Hall powers-that-be for his unsanctioned actions. Again, he shrugs. He says he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands when city responses to his constituents’ maintenance requests are either delayed or ignored.

“I’m not going to wait around, ” he declared, defiantly.

In fact, officials from several city departments tell FOX Chicago News that much of the maintenance work Waguespack involves himself in–well, he shouldn’t involve himself in it–such as removing sewer covers or turning on fire hydrants to clear drains.A spokesman for the water department said, “This kind of stuff, if done improperly, can lead to injuries, water main breaks and property damage.”

And “alderman” or not, it’s illegal.

Yet Waguespack is not alone in his desire to clean up his ward. Tom Tunney, 44nd Ward Alderman, has been in clean-up mode for years, dating back to the days when he routinely cleaned the gutters along-side his Ann Sather Restaurant on Belmont.

“There is just a lot of garbage on the street,” said Tunney as he shoveled it out from under the cars that weren’t moved on street cleaning day.

He then pitches the muck into the middle of the street, and a street-sweeping machine whisks it away. “You have to work with them,” explained Tunney.

Tunney also collects branches, removes weeds, and cleans the parkway for constituents on his days on the streets. On this particular morning, he does so with the help a sole summer intern–in the pouring rain.

Still, he knows he doesn’t have to do this.

“It sets an example that no job is too big or too small for the alderman. We get our hands dirty like everybody else,” said Tunney.

At the same time, while many of Tunney’s constituents commend him for his work, some say there are far better uses for his time.

“How about trying to lower our taxes?,” suggested a female resident at a nearby coffee shop. “Or fighting crime.” (Both Tunney and Waugespack insist that their street-cleaning efforts don’t detract from their more traditional aldermanic duties.)

Unlike Waguespack, though, Tunney says he has never gotten any resistance from city departments about his efforts, at least not on the street level.

“I have not gotten any pushback from workers,” said Tunney. “I think they appreciate what I do.”

FOX Chicago called a random sampling of other aldermen–22 of the city’s 50–to find out if they, too, were regularly “out and about”, engaging in physical labor in their wards. Of those who responded, a dozen cited specific examples. Toni Preckwinkle, 4th Ward Alderman, said she also cleans out storm sewers. Anthony Beale rakes leaves and blows snow in the 9th Ward. Brian Doherty, 41st Ward Alderman, spreads wood chips and mulch in local parks. And Bob Fioretti drives around the 2nd Ward looking for graffiti to spraypaint clean.

Of course, both Tunney and Waguespack are also, quite possibly, polishing their public images as they scrub their streets. Both aldermen have toyed with notion of running for mayor.

Tunney said this spring that his

decision would depend largely on whether Mayor Daley decides to run again. Waguespack says he has “eluded” to running in the past. Now, he’s more precise. “I could do it,” he said, rather emphatically.

“We need someone who’s going to run this city and do it the right way. We need somebody to start cracking the whip on stuff like this, all the way up to the big stuff,” said Waguespack–as he shoveled little stuff out of a drain.

So, is Chicago due for an overhaul?

“Or a big giant enema. That’s what it really needs,” said Waguespack. Kind of like the sewers in his ward.