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Johnson appoints one West Side pastor to CTA board, then nominates another West Side pastor for RTA board

Supporters argue that, despite his lack of transit expertise, Ira Acree’s social justice experience and political connections could be an asset for the RTA board.

Michael Eaddy, appointed to the CTA board, and Ira Acree, nominated for the RTA board. Photos: Twitter, Facebook

This post is sponsored by Keating Law Offices.

Update Thursday 5/2/24, 1:00 PM: After this article was published, Rochelle Johnson, a long-time transit advocate in the West Side's North Lawndale community, contacted Streetsblog to weigh in on Ira Acree's nomination.  Jackson has chaired the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council's transportation committee for the past several years, and she has been a key figure in the push to restore Ogden Avenue bus service in her community. 

Jackson told us that she wonders why "the mayor continues to appoint people to committees and boards who have absolutely no clue to what goes on in these organizations. Unless they have worked in [these fields] for a few years or forever, they can't begin to know what people's needs are."

"[Acree] probably doesn't even know a single bus route that runs through the community he lives in," Jackson added. "I don't recall him ever attending any meetings that I've been in the [past] 7 years regarding issues with the CTA. He is probably going to need to do some research on the system before he can speak on it."

After appointing an influential West Side pastor who is not a transit expert to the CTA board, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson nominated another well-connected West Side pastor with no transit expertise to the Regional Transportation Authority board.

The CTA board is responsible for overseeing the transit agency and, in theory, acts as a check on the agency’s executive director and president Dorval Carter. In practice, the board members have tended to offer nothing but praise and support for Carter. That's even as the president has come under increased scrutiny as CTA service levels continue to lag, and the agency struggles to hire and retain drivers. While the Illinois governor, currently JB Pritzker, appoints three out of seven transit board members, Chicago mayors appoint the remaining four, giving them control of the majority. We'll discuss how RTA board appointments work in a bit.

The RTA and CTA board appointments must be confirmed by the Illinois General Assembly and the Chicago City Council, respectively, but that has tended to be little more than a formality. After Johnson appointed Michael Eaddy, who pastors at the People's Church Of The Harvest COGIC, to the CTA board, the Council confirmed Eaddy without a single ‘no’ (plus one absence) on April 17.

During the same Council meeting, the mayor nominated Ira Acree, a long-time pastor at Austin’s Greater St. John Bible Church, to the RTA board. The appointment needs to clear the Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way, which is currently scheduled to meet on May 8 at 11 a.m. at City Hall, before going before the full Council later that month for final approval.

The CTA’s troubles have led to renewed discussion about who gets appointed to the transit agency's board. As Block Club's Manny Ramos recently reported, out of 50 appointments to the CTA board in the past 40 years, only three had professional public transportation experience. While both Eaddy and Acree have records of community advocacy and combatting racially driven systemic disparities, the lack of transit expertise issue persists. 

Acree told Streetsblog that he was "not at liberty" to discuss the appointment until the Council confirms him. But he said that he looks forward to talking about the appointment and his priorities once he clears that hurdle. Acree’s supporters argued that, while he may not be a transit expert, he is familiar with systemic issues affecting the West Side, including disparities in transit access.

The CTA Blue Line's Kostner station in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. The station has been shuttered since 1973. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The RTA board

While the RTA has a less direct impact on CTA services than the CTA board does, it still plays a key role in the Chicagoland transit ecosystem. It divvies up state and federal grants and other types of funding and sets transit planning priorities for the entire Chicagoland region. It technically has the final word on CTA, Metra and Pace budgets although, in practice, its approval is usually a formality. 

Although the CTA board’s balance of power is tilted in Chicago’s favor, the RTA board is more of a three-way balancing act between the City, Cook County, and the collar counties. There are 15 RTA board members, plus the chair who is elected by the rest of the board. The Chicago mayor appoints five members, the Cook County commissioners who represent the suburban districts appoint four, the Cook County board president, currently Toni Preckwinkle, appoints one, and the chair of each collar county’s board of commissioners appoints one. 

Chicago mayors only get to appoint one member to each of the boards of the Pace suburban bus and Metra commuter rail agencies. Therefore balance of power at those agencies is mostly between Cook County and the collar counties.

Acree would be appointed to an RTA seat vacated by director Thomas Kotel, the Recording Secretary of Chicago-based Pipe Fitters Local Union No. 597. His board bio mentions his long record in the construction industry and managing union pension plans, but no transit experience. Before then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Kotel to the RTA board in 2017, Kotel served on the Public Buildings Commission of Chicago, which signs off on major construction projects for the City of Chicago and its "sister agencies" such as the Chicago Park District and the CTA. 

While Kotel's construction experience might have been relevant to RTA-funded transit capital projects, the other four Chicago-appointed directors’ transit experience is more tenuous. Director Phil Fuentes, a Richard M. Daley appointee, is a McDonalds franchisee. Director Alexandra Holt, another Emanuel appointee, is an executive at the Art Institute of Chicago who previously worked for the Chicago Mayor’s Office in various capacities. Fellow Emanuel appointee Christopher Melvin heads the Melvin & Co. trading firm. Sarah Pang, another Emanuel appointee, is an executive at CNA insurance firm who previously worked for the Richard M. Daley administration. 

Similarly, the suburban RTA board appointees have little to no prior transit experience. However the current board chair, former state senator Kirk Dillard, is a long-time transit advocate.

The question of political influence

Acree pastors in Austin, the West Side community Johnson calls home. The clergyman co-chairs the Leaders Network, a coalition of West Side faith leaders. Acree has been advocating for social justice and against systemic inequities for around 30 years. For example, when Austin and several other West Side neighborhoods were flooded in July 2023, he was among the faith leaders who urged the City to act quicker to provide aid for the affected residents.

The Leaders Network pushed for an investigation into whether the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago delayed temporarily reversing the flow of the Chicago River to Lake Michigan in order to spare the Loop and the North Side neighborhood at the West Side’s expense. MWRD denied that allegation. (This certainly wasn't the first time in history that the Chicago River has been reversed.)

Acree is no stranger to politics. When Mayor Johnson stepped down from the Cook County board, Acree was one of the several West Siders to apply for the vacancy. Although he was one of the six finalists, the appointment went to another Johnson ally, Chicago Teachers Union member Tara Stamps. She was also a former candidate for alderperson for the West Side's 37th Ward, which includes parts of Austin.

The six finalists for Mayor Johnson’s old Cook County board seat, with Stamps standing third from the left, and Acree second from the right. Photo: Igor Studenkov

As Block Club previously reported, after Michael Eaddy initially endorsed then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the 2023 general election, he threw his support behind Johnson in the runoff.

Stamps’ opponent in her 37th Ward race, Ald. Emma Mitts, is now an ally, and a major West Side political player. On April 25, Ald. Mitts was appointed to the Democratic State Central Committee, the governing body of the Democratic Party of Illinois, filling the seat left vacant by Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s death. In an interview later that night, Ald. Mitts told Streetsblog that she would welcome having a West Sider on the RTA board. She noted that Johnson is a West Sider, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon is from the neighboring suburb of Oak Park, and Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch lives in west suburban Hillside.

Ald. Mitts argued that having West Siders and west suburbanites at all levels of power makes it easier to affect meaningful change on the West Side. "West Side is going up. If we keep coming together, all of us coming together, having working relationships, it can be nothing but good news."

Long time West Side activist Mary Gardner, who also applied for Karen Yarbrough's former Cook County Clerk seat, is a parishioner at Acree’s church. She argued that as an RTA board member Acree would be a strong advocate for addressing transit access disparities between predominantly Black and predominantly white communities.

"He'll bring a keen sense of awareness, not just to the obvious disparities," Gardner said. "He'd be a great strong voice that will advocate, not just for the better services, but services that are equal to what other communities consider normal. I mean, to me, I've seen him walking, [I’ve seen him a] couple of times on the train as well. He's somebody who will bring lived experiences to that seat, if he's confirmed. I think he would be a great choice, a great voice who could speak on the behalf of the West Side citizenry."

Streetsblog readers, do you have any thoughts on who might be a good choice for the RTA board in order to help create a more effective and equitable Chicagoland transit system? Let us know in the comment section.

Read the Block Club article here.

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