CHICAGO (CBS) — CBS 2 is always investigating – and we don’t give up.
We’ve told you about chronic trash dumping issues in a Far South Side community. Thanks to his dogged reporting, CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas now has a better sense of what may be to blame.READ MORE: 1 Dead, 2 Injured In I-57 Expressway Shooting Near 119th Street
Let’s just say the issue could be called all in the family.
Before we went looking for 34th Ward Supt. Kenneth Austin this month, and before we showed up at the office of his mother, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), we found an alley full of trash piles back in December.
“That’s been there at least a month, month and a half,” neighbor Derrick White said at the time.
The alley is located off 115th Street and Wentworth Avenue in West Pullman. White and his family were frustrated that the city wasn’t cleaning it up.
“We call the alderman’s office. Nothing’s happening here,” White said. “This is why we’re talking to you. We need help here.”
Then we found another similar scene elsewhere in the 34th Ward, and another, and another. Carrie Austin is currently Chicago’s second longest-serving alderman, and the former chair of the City Council’s powerful Budget Committee.
So Morgan Park landlord Francis Kelly figured when he complained to her office, she’d get the job done. He had found roof tile and old windows lying in a heap.
“It seemed like when we called the alderman’s office, there wasn’t a great deal of ownership with the issue,” Kelly said. “Basically, all our follow-ups, we would hear, ‘Well, we’d pass it on.’”
Here’s what we didn’t report back in December – a source told us Carrie Austin’s ward superintendent, her son Kenneth, had recently been suspended for issues related to the trash problems.
We couldn’t confirm the punishment at the time, because the Department of Streets and Sanitation told us in an email that Kenneth Austin “has not been suspended for this and is not currently serving a suspension.”
Something didn’t smell right, so we kept digging – and McNicholas filed a public records request for his disciplinary files. Sure enough, he had been suspended in the fall of 2020.
The reason listed was “absenteeism-AWOL-other violation of city policy and rules.”
You heard that right – in the ward with the fourth most fly dumping complaints in the city with a total of 531, one of the top people in charge of cleaning up the trash was suspended for absenteeism.
“It is frustrating,” Kelly said. “It’s our tax dollars, right?”
That weeklong suspension was in September, right in the middle of Kelly’s months-long struggle to get the trash cleaned up. But it didn’t get cleaned up until December – after our stories.
“It’s very disappointing that we were really trying with a lot of follow-ups, a lot of emails, a lot of submissions to 311 – but we didn’t feel like we were getting any traction,” Kelly said.
The suspension is not the first time Kenneth Austin has been in trouble with the city.READ MORE: Organizer Planning To Go Ahead With Concert In Valparaiso, Indiana This Summer, With Some COVID Precautions
Sources told us he resigned from his job as a Streets and Sanitation laborer back in 2015 after an Inspector General investigation found he got in a crash in a city vehicle – and had another employee cover for him – because Kenneth Austin’s license was suspended.
His mom brought him on just a year later as her assistant before moving him up to ward superintendent in 2017 – where he now earns $86,000 in taxpayer dollars per year.
“Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves an opportunity,” Kelly said. “But everyone in the city, I think, who works for the city has to be accountable and take responsibility for the things going on in the ward; in the neighborhood.”
So that brings us to February 2021. Once we learned of the suspension, we wanted to ask Kelly about it – but the office staff said he was out in the field.
Ald. Austin has publicly defended hiring relatives in the past, so we wanted to hear her thoughts on the suspension. But her chief of staff, Chester Wilson, said she was out of the office and busy.
Wilson said, “No comment, sir,” when McNicholas asked if the alderman’s office knew Kenneth Austin had been suspended.
Back in December, the alderman did talk to us on the phone about the fly dumping – before we knew about Kenneth and his suspension.
McNicholas” “Isn’t there a ward superintendent or someone who should be going around looking for stuff that’s this obvious?”
Austin: “No. That’s not routine of the ward superintendent that I’m aware of.”
According to a job description, that is exactly what a ward superintendent is supposed to do. Among other tasks, the ward superintendent is expected to “survey overall conditions in the ward, assessing cleanliness of ward areas, and identifying need for additional City services.”
When McNicholas went back this month, Ald. Austin was apparently not in the mood to chat. When we checked back at 4 p.m., chief of staff Wilson motioned for McNicholas to leave as he closed up shop.
McNicholas never heard back from either Austin.
But we did find more piles of trash dumped in the ward – including piles of wood and a car bumper – buried under the snow.
Kenneth Austin apparently hadn’t spotted these yet.
A Department of Streets and Sanitation spokesperson said they can’t comment on individual personnel issues. They issued this statement:
“The Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) cannot give details on individual personnel issues. In regards to the reports for uncollected trash, employees were disciplined and are subject to a hearing. DSS remains committed to keeping Chicago safe and clean.”
We should add the city disciplined several Streets and San employees following our earlier stories.
Meanwhile, Ald. Austin has other problems on her plate. Her campaign committee is facing a $145,000 fine from the city for accepting too large a donation from a construction contractor.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Temperatures Climbing; Sunny Skies Ahead
Ald. Austin, by the way, is the chair of the council’s Committee on Contracting Equity and Oversight.