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Pastor Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church speaks as some Loretto Hospital workers went on strike on July 31, 2023 at the Austin safety net hospital, demanding better work conditions, hours and wages. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

CITY HALL — A pastor's appointment to a regional transit oversight board passed through a city committee Wednesday over the objections of two aldermen and despite the pastor saying he rarely rides CTA.

Ira J. Acree, a longtime pastor and community organizer at Austin's Greater St. John Bible Church, was grilled by aldermen at a Transportation and Public Way Committee hearing Wednesday over his appointment to the board of the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees CTA, Pace and Metra.

Acree's appointment to the transportation board advanced through the committee, but not before some tense testimony over Acree's use of public transit and his knowledge of issues impacting the CTA and other transit agencies. It will now head to City Council for approval.

Acree said Wednesday's meeting was his “first time hearing about” local transit's impending $730 million fiscal cliff and that he did not speak directly about the position with Mayor Brandon Johnson, who nominated him for the seat.

The pastor also said he relied on CTA as a commuter student in high school and college, but uses it less often now.

“As a man, I don't have to use CTA. I'm fortunate to have a car. But I use the CTA often when I come Downtown,” Acree said. “I came up on the CTA. I know the glory days. I looked at my own leadership skills, my ability to collaborate with diverse stakeholders...and I thought this would be a great opportunity to come here and share my wisdom and the networks I represent.

“That's what drove me to this,” Acree said at the hearing.

Acree's nomination to the Regional Transportation Authority board comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over the handling of transit oversight in Chicago.

Rev. Ira Acree speaks with Clayton Harris III, Cook County States Attorney candidate, before he holds a press conference calling out his competitor Eileen O’Neill Burke at the Federal Plaza on March 4, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

As CTA lags behind other major cities in post-pandemic service recovery, local leaders and advocacy groups have called for the firing of CTA chief Dorval Carter. Those groups have also been critical of the oversight of regional transit bodies, which have seen politically connected people appointed to board seats.

Gov. JB Pritzker has called for a “leadership change” at the CTA and the Tribune, Sun-Times and Crain's editorial boards have also called for Carter's ouster.

Out of more than 50 appointments to the CTA board over the past 40 years, only three were transportation experts, while most seats were reserved as plum positions for politically connected people, Block Club previously revealed. And last month, another politically connected pastor was appointed to the CTA board.

Acree is co-chair of the Leaders Network, a coalition of West Side pastors. He's spoken out about police brutality, joined picket lines for health care workers, urged the city to aid residents impacted by West Side flooding last year and helped start a West Side credit union to combat discriminatory lending practices.

A handful of West Side pastors came to the hearing Wednesday in support of Acree, including Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But an organizing group of frustrated CTA riders collected hundreds of petitions against Acree's appointment, saying he was unqualified to hold transit leaders accountable as CTA struggles continue.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) were the only two aldermen on City Council's transportation committee to “nay” Acree's appointment in a voice vote.

Vasquez said he appreciated Acree for being a West Side community leader with a “commitment to equity and public engagement,” but that he was not suited to serve on the board at a critical turning point for the region's transit system.

“The preparation was clearly not there, and to hear him say the mayor didn't even call him, there was no conversation about any of this, is striking when you hear how really frustrated everybody in the city is about the public transportation system,” Vasquez said following the hearing.

Waguespack appeared to stump Acree when asking him if he supported farebox integration for CTA, Pace and Metra as state lawmakers consider a consolidation of the transit agencies.

Acree added it would be “unfair to pass judgment” on Carter until he joined the board and received more information. Waguespack disagreed.

“I think it's very important to know, before you go into this position, what some of your judgements are going to be of leadership,” Waguespack said. “We churn out transit experts from our universities here in Chicago...yet we're lacking in that leadership both at the CTA and the RTA.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) reacts at a City Council meeting on March 20, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

Acree said he spoke briefly with a mayoral staffer after he expressed interest in the board seat.

“He’s [Johnson] a busy guy,” Acree said. “This is very important, but he has much bigger fish to fry.”

Acree backed Johnson in the mayoral election run-off, inviting Johnson to speak as a candidate and later mayor-elect at his church, 1256 N. Waller Ave., in the Austin neighborhood where Johnson has long lived.

Last year, Acree sought to fill Johnson's vacated seat on the Cook County board, but Democrats ultimately picked Tara Stamps, a former Chicago Teachers Union organizer and mentor to Johnson.

Mayoral candidate Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson greets Marissa Scher at the Racine CTA Blue Line stop on April 3, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

Acree's hearing Wednesday took a much more critical tone than the breezy appointment of Pastor Michael Eaddy to the CTA Board last month, who was also nominated by Johnson for the role after being booted from the Chicago Police board.

Roberto Requejo, founding director of transit advocacy group Elevated Chicago, was Johnson's first CTA Board appointment and was confirmed at a separate meeting Wednesday.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) was one of several South and West side alderpeople to speak in favor of Acree's appointment.

“I think Rev. Acree is in a great position to represent people of color,” Harris said. “There's going to be somebody I can pick up the phone to and say ‘here's what I need you to work on' ... I'm excited and thrilled about having somebody who I know their name, I know who they are, I know their character.”

Calling Acree “a friend,” Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said many alderpeople aren't policy experts when they're elected. Acree will learn on the job, too, he said.

Acree said he speaks with CTA riders and workers on the West Side on a weekly basis about the ongoing struggles with service, including ghost buses and trains. He'll look to address the “great disparities” in transit for the city's underserved communities.

“Everybody has the right to the tree of life, even in rail transportation,” Acree said. “When you look at the state and CTA, you certainly cannot come in and maintain the status quo.”

The five-year appointment pays $25,000 annually and requires members to attend a monthly meeting. The board is tasked with approving the annual budget, two-year financial plan and five-year capital plan that funds the three transit agencies.

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