Ald. Gardiner has spent $20,000 on vanity projects

Our analysis of Alderman Jim Gardiner’s expenses from his taxpayer-funded Aldermanic expense account shows a concerning pattern of wasteful spending and lax oversight by the Comptroller’s office.

We’ve reviewed every expense report from the 45th Ward office from May 20, 2019 through December 31, 2020 — over two hundred reports and associated receipts obtained from the Department of Finance under the Freedom of Information Act.

This is part one of our analysis, which shows as the city has grappled with a massive budget crisis, Gardiner spent over $20,000 from city coffers on self-promotional items typically paid by elected officials’ campaign accounts — while he sits on two campaign accounts with a total of $83,000. Why is Gardiner spending our money while barely touching his campaign fund?

Alderman Gardiner’s $4,600 taxpayer funded photocell-activated sign to display his name in lights

These self-promotional items, often blurring the lines with campaign materials, include:

  • A 13-foot long vanity sign designed to put “Alderman Gardiner” in lights, including electrical work on the building to add a 20-amp circuit and photocell activator to power the sign ($4,605)
  • A “spring newsletter” — the Alderman’s only printed newsletter , featuring the same content recycled every week in his emailed newsletter — conspicuously mailed to 19,500 constituents less than two weeks before the 45th Ward Committeeperson election on March 17, 2020 in which Gardiner was a candidate ($7,859 in printing and postage)
  • Two thousand “Clean Up After Your Dog” and “Slow Down” signs ($3,400)
  • Customized, branded apparel with Gardiner’s name embroidered or screen printed, including vests, hoodies, polos, t-shirts, jackets ($1,870)
  • Seven thousand five hundred “I stopped by but missed you” door hangers featuring the Alderman’s photo and name as 2/3 of the content ($950)
  • An 8' x 6' banner with Gardiner’s name taking up 80% of the real estate; attached emails show Department of Finance staff pointed out typically an alderman’s name takes up no more than 25% of the space but it was still approved ($480)
  • Updates to his website to add a Gardiner Angels page, a self-promotional fake volunteer organization comprised of part-time staffers on the city payroll ($380)
  • Customized 4' x 6' doormat featuring Gardiner’s name ($364, photo)
  • A 50" Hitachi TV mounted in the lobby of Gardiner’s office dedicated to displaying a slide show of pictures of himself ($349, photo)

Aldermen spending money on many of these things is not that unusual. What is highly unusual is most elected officials use money from their own campaign accounts not city funds. Spot checking other aldermen’s offices, external signage seems to be rare and we’ve found none that required custom electrical work to power a lighted sign (photos of Ald. Napolitano, Sposato, Villegas, and Reboyras). While many aldermen have signs advising residents to pick up after their dog or slow down, our analysis shows these are almost universally funded by campaigns.

The city policy governing Aldermanic expenses explains “funds are to be used for ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the alderman’s official duties”. Among other prohibitions, the policy states “In no event shall any aldermanic expense allowance funds be used for… personal, political, campaign-related expenses, or advertising.”

This fund is intended to cover additional staff salaries, rent, utilities, office supplies, and to supplement city services as needed to protect the health, safety, or welfare of residents. Under pressure from the Council in November 2019, Mayor Lightfoot agreed to increase the aldermanic expense allowance by $25,000 per year, to a total of $122,000 per alderman. To spend $20,000 of taxpayer monies on gratuitous signage, embroidered apparel, and printed self-promotional materials is wasteful, in no way a service to constituents, and exactly what campaign funds are for.

In our next story we’ll take a look at how Gardiner and his staff have spent thousands more from his city account on questionable purchases such as an electric fireplace, electronics for a Department of Streets & Sanitation employee, and materials to promote former U.S. Senate candidate Willie Wilson.