City on a Hill – How Mayor Pete Urges Us to Build a Better Elmhurst

Part I

One of my goals this year has been to read as many memoirs of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as possible, to help me decide who I will vote for during our state’s primary next March. So, when I traveled to Boston for the 4th of July holiday this year, I brought with me a copy of Pete Buttigieg’s memoir, Shortest Way Home. Like many books I have selected before, it had met my criteria for vacation reading: simple enough to pick up and put away between the busy periods of my trip, yet filled with complex and profound ideas that would captivate me for the weeks ahead. As it turns out, Mayor Pete’s book was a fitting accompaniment to my Boston vacation.

As I walked through Harvard Square, I thought of Mayor Pete as a wide-eyed, young freshman nearly 20 years ago, getting his first introduction to a “big city” compared to his native South Bend. As I entered the JFK Library and saw a few of the young staffers at the museum, I imagined the young intern Pete, who landed internships at both the Library and Senator Ted Kennedy’s office. His exposure to politics began when he won the JFK Library’s “Profiles in Courage” essay contest as a high school student.

But Mayor Pete’s book resonated with me in another way, as it prompted me to reflect on my prior two years of political advocacy and community involvement in Elmhurst. He begins his book with a story about a blizzard that hit South Bend in 1978, and how the acting mayor coordinated an effective response to clear the snow and to provide emergency services. He ends his book with a reflection on his regular office hours with residents. It’s a welcome reminder that good governance results from focused attention to the everyday, that community issues normally don’t fall along partisan lines, and so many things that happen in our lives are possible only because of a functioning local—rather than national—government.

As the saying goes, “all politics is local.” When I reflect on the past two years that I’ve lived in Elmhurst, I realize that much of my passion has been focused on progressive issues at the local level. I’ve advocated for increased access to recycling at apartment and condo buildings in Elmhurst. I’ve attended numerous city council and committee meetings to fight against barriers to a local family’s desire to build a hoop house in their backyard. I’ve volunteered for people running for local office, including candidates for city council, park district board, and county board.

Therefore, as I begin my research into the candidates, reading many of their memoirs, isn’t it fitting that I begin with Mayor Pete, whose experience as chief executive of a local government is his primary qualification to the highest office of our nation?

The second chapter of the book, which details Mayor Pete’s life in Boston and education at Harvard, is titled “City on a Hill.” The phrase comes from a sermon given by an early founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Boston was originally comprised of three hills. But as Mayor Pete explains in his book, “city on a hill” also has metaphorical and aspirational meaning, going far beyond the mere geographical features of Boston.

Winthrop envisioned that Boston would be placed on a pedestal (“a hill”), where “the eyes of all people are upon us.” Over 300 years later, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy would refer to Winthrop’s sermon, setting the foundation for American exceptionalism. And so, our nation’s identity as a model for others was built on a city’s promise to become a model of virtue. As John F. Kennedy stated in his address to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1961, every branch and level of government (including local government) “must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

If only Elmhurst would share that vision! How refreshing it would be for our mayor to regard Elmhurst as a “city on a hill,” where “the eyes of all people are upon us.” How noble it would be for our aldermen to recognize that they must act with great courage and integrity, that they must never compromise their principles or the people who depend on them, that their service must be dedicated solely to the public good.

My advocacy in Elmhurst started in early 2018, after I discovered several procedural violations of Illinois open meetings laws during city council and committee meetings. I was surprised to learn that there were many other mistakes, and I recall the notices that the Illinois Attorney General’s office sent during their review process, as I urged the aldermen to do better. I remember a phone call with an alderman, after the Attorney General issued a directive for the city’s committees to re-review all of their meeting minutes—every single one of them—so that they could improve. I also reminded her of a separate local ordinance that the city council had not followed. She told me that the city council had disagreed with the directive and felt that no further action was required. I was appalled. On what basis can the city council disagree with the Attorney General? How can their interpretation deviate from the clear, precise mandates of the law?

While the law said one thing, the city council was doing the opposite. How could we motivate them to fix their mistakes? I was further motivated to act when I realized that the rights of real people—members of our Elmhurst community—were at stake. There was the Virgil family, who wanted to know whether they would eventually get their hoop house, but was left without answers because a city council committee declined to provide information required by local ordinance. There was a group of residents from north Elmhurst who opposed the expansion of a nursing home in their neighborhood, but had very little recourse after the city council ruled in the nursing home’s favor. There were residents who advocated for environmental issues and stormwater mitigation, but couldn’t monitor these issues effectively because minutes were not approved and posted online. There was an entire neighborhood who wanted to attend a zoning hearing to protest a gas station, but couldn’t even enter the room or hear what was discussed because the meeting room was too small. These residents might not have known all the intricacies of the law, and they needed someone to defend their rights to public information and government transparency. Who was going to step up?

In the book, Mayor Pete recounts his decision in 2010 to run as the only challenger to the incumbent state treasurer of Indiana, a Republican. No matter how unlikely victory would have been, he campaigned “in the name of the people and communities who could have been devastated” by his opponent’s decisions. He expresses my mentality quite well: “If no one else was going to step up, why not me?”

In my case, my own outrage led to action. I became more vocal. Who else would review hundreds of records to check whether local officials were complying with the law and file complaints against them when they didn’t? Who else would defend a resident’s right to information from her government? Who else would conduct research on dozens of court decisions and administrative opinions to figure out the legal issues that were at play? Who else would tell the Elmhurst community what was going on in local government, when local journalists had other stories to focus on? So, I joined the cadre of activists and watchdogs in Elmhurst. I attended meetings, and I spoke up when local officials were doing something wrong. I advocated harder for the ethical and environmental issues that I care about.

 Edgar Pal

Author’s Note: Part II of my blog will be posted in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, would you like to learn more about advocacy in Elmhurst, including the lessons and rewards? Consider increasing your participation in local government. Luckily, there are many options. Residents can email their aldermen to provide feedback, both positive and negative. You can also attend city council meetings or watch the recordings to stay updated on local affairs. Lastly, you can reach out to organizations like Citizen Advocacy Center to strengthen your civic engagement, seek assistance from a community lawyer, or network with like-minded citizens.