Former Ald. Arena resigns city planning adviser post
Represented 45th Ward on council for 2 terms; move effective Jan. 17
Controversial former Ald. John Arena has resigned his position as senior adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s planning department, city officials confirmed Friday.
The Lightfoot administration issued a statement saying Arena informed them last month he was retiring effective Jan. 17. The statement gave no explanation for the resignation, and Arena did not return messages seeking comment.
Arena represented the Northwest Side’s 45th Ward for two terms before being thumped in last year’s election by Chicago firefighter Jim Gardiner. In September, Lightfoot hired Arena to a $123,996-a-year job, drawing criticism from some Northwest Side aldermen.
Arena remains the 45th Ward committeeman and has kept a higher profile than most city employees. Last month, Arena showed up at a community meeting where critics say he passed out nominating petitions for a political candidate he supports, according to a Sun-Times report.
During his time on the City Council, Arena earned respect from Chicago progressives for positions including his support for affordable housing even in communities where residents opposed such developments. Last summer, Arena exchanged insults with fellow Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, over a housing development Arena supported in Napolitano’s ward.
At the time, Napolitano called Arena a “coward of an alderman” for lobbying Zoning Committee members on behalf of the project Napolitano opposed. Arena shot back: “A coward is one that caves to pressure that’s based in bigotry and hate.”
Arena also raised the ire of many first responders in his ward by calling the city’s inspector general and Civilian Office of Police Accountability to report racially charged online comments about a controversial Jefferson Park apartment development plan that includes affordable housing.
At the planning department, Arena’s responsibilities included working with development partners on the South and West sides, helping outside delegate agencies coordinate with city development projects and helping facilitate development goals set by neighborhood groups, the city said in September.
Gardiner expressed his opposition to the hire during a meeting with Lightfoot. Asked about Gardiner’s opposition at a news conference, Lightfoot said, “With due respect to the freshman, I make my decisions based upon the merits.”
“If we start a precedent of somebody who is a winner basically banning someone from employment, where does it end? And so, I think what Gardiner should focus on is what matters to his ward,” the mayor said. “He doesn’t have a say over my hiring decisions, nor does any other alderman. I respect the views that aldermen bring to the table, but at the end of the day I’m going to make the calls that I think are in the best interests of the city, and that’s what I did in this instance.”
Asked whether giving Arena a high-paid City Hall job shortly after he lost is an example of the insider politics she had promised to vanquish, Lightfoot replied that she thought Arena would be an asset in the planning department.
“With due respect, I don’t spend my time comparing myself to other mayors,” she said. “I know that’s something that happens in the media. I’m calling balls and strikes based on the information that I have in front of me, based on what our specific needs are. I think John Arena is a smart, able person who brings a wealth of experience that will, I think, aid us and a new commissioner in Planning substantially, or otherwise he wouldn’t be there.”