Brian Ramson speaks to community members at 11th district council meeting on May 24, 2023. | Francia Garcia Hernandez

Earlier this year, Chicagoans voted for the first time to elect police district councils. In the 11th District, two of the five candidates who ran were knocked off the ballot, which meant that the remaining three would be elected by default. As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, at the district council’s first public meeting, community members questioned how some of the district council members were selected to represent the community.

The comments erupted after the three district council members – Brian J. Ramson, Jocelyn Woodards and Alees Edwards – proceeded to vote on the bylaws and group agreements of the district council. Community members expressed their frustration with the meeting, held at the Legler Regional Library, as they were under the impression that the district council would dedicate the majority of the meeting to discuss public safety after a shooting incident where two minors were hurt outside the library in weeks prior.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) previously denied to Austin Weekly News that he had any role kicking two of the five 11th district council candidates off the ballot, which allowed the remaining three to win in by default. While this newspaper hasn’t been able to find any concrete proof to the contrary, Chicago Board of Elections Commission records obtained by this newspaper showed that he was actively involved in the election process. The nominating petitions filed with the elections board show Ervin collected signatures on behalf of Jocelyn Woodards, who now serves as nominating committee member and Brian J. Ramson, who now serves as chair of the 11th district council.

The documents also show that Ervin’s office was responsible for notarizing the nominating petitions of the slate that included both candidates.

“So, Jason Ervin, alderman of the 28th ward asked myself and Brian to run for these positions,” Woodards told the Austin Weekly News in a phone interview. “He asked me because of my background and the work I had been doing in the block and Brian, he also met through Brian’s work around his block.”

Ervin did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Woodards is a labor and community organizer, and veteran of numerous political campaigns, including working on the staff of five presidential campaigns. Ramson is a physicist at Fermilab, researching neutrino physics and the co-director of Fermilab’s Saturday Morning Physics program, as stated on Fermilab’s website.

Tensions in the 11th district council erupted at its first meeting and have continued between the three members, who were elected to improve relationships between the police and the community, collaborate in the development of community policing initiatives, create opportunities for community members to work with the police on their concerns and priorities and get their input on police department policies and practices.

At the core of these tensions are the bylaws and roles established for each district council. The approved bylaws established the chair’s role to be “the primary point of contact for all official communication and media contact on behalf of the District Council.” The chair is also responsible for determining the yearly strategy, plans and programs of the 11th district council. So far, the 11th district council is the only one out of the three district councils covering the Chicago Police Department’s Area Four, one with the highest rates of violence, which expanded the role of the chair and designated a spokesperson.

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Two of the three district council members, Ramson and Woodards voted in favor of the bylaws, approving them, while one district council member, Edwards, abstained. Her objection came as she has pushed for equality among all three district council members to be spokespersons for the 11th district and equally share responsibilities.

“This is a power grab. From day one, from us meeting in person for the first time, it came up that he would be the spokesperson,” Edwards told the Austin Weekly.

Woodards said the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability provided a draft of the bylaws that defined three roles for district councils – chair, community engagement coordinator and nominating person – with specific responsibilities. The CCPSA determined basic responsibilities for each role and indicated district councils could propose modifications.

“We’re trying to come up with a strategic communication plan which is why we identify the need for someone to be the spokesperson ‘cause you have to teach a communications plan,” Woodards said, adding that given the violence that the 11th police district experiences, it is important that the district council is consistent and unified, also called message discipline.

Message discipline can be accomplished through trainings and scripts, Edwards told this publication, adding that would eliminate the need for a spokesperson and allow for more productive interactions between the 11th district council and community members.

To understand how the bylaws for the 11th district were proposed, the Austin Weekly News obtained redacted email correspondence between the three district council members and staff of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability through a Freedom of Information Act request. As the emails were heavily redacted, the Austin Weekly News could not confirm the content of all emails.

However, emails show that Ramson and Woodards proposed modifications to the bylaws draft proposed by the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability on May 22, before their first public meeting. The proposal was shared with CCPSA staff members, who reviewed it for legality and clarity. It appears it was not shared with Edwards. An email dated May 23 sent and shared by Woodards proposed expanding the role of the chair and establishing a strategic communications plan.

“After 40 years of professional employment as an ‘organizer,’ I have never seen a communications plan that did not identify a ‘spokesperson,’” Woodards told Austin Weekly. “My suggested refinement of the role of the chair is to better serve the needs of the 11th District by further outlining roles and responsibilities given the enormous task/mission of the District Councils.”

11th District Council member Alees Edwards | Provided

Edwards said the CCPSA indicated that the initial proposal limiting which district council members could speak to the press was “overreaching” as every district council has to maintain their First Amendment rights.

Edwards said before the bylaws were proposed, “from day one” she had discussed with Woodards the idea of having a spokesperson for the district council and agreed with it as a benefit for the group. Her position changed after the shooting incident outside of Legler Public Library, where community members who are part of the community-based initiatives she is involved with were directly affected and called on her to take a stance.

Edwards and Woodards said after hearing about the incident all district councils agreed to change the agenda of their first meeting to provide time for community members to discuss their concerns and needs with police officers. The district councils also agreed to co-participate in a press conference with community-based organizations like the Institute for Nonviolence, the Westside Cultural Alliance and the Rite to Wellness Collaborative. Email correspondence shows these organizations originally asked Edwards, in her role as a faith-based community organizer, to be involved and she suggested all district councils participate. As Ramson had been informally designated spokesperson, Edwards asked for 30 seconds of time to also speak about this incident and offer her condolences.

“It has never been my position that one person should be the delegated spokesperson for the DC group,” Edwards said, adding the Legler Public Library shooting incident demonstrated the importance for district council members to respond to the needs of community members.

Edwards said after she disagreed with the roles and responsibilities proposed by the other two district council members, tensions have continued to increase, leading her and Ramson to call for mediation from the CCPSA. This publication could not confirm if that was the case as the CCPSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In discussions, district council members have questioned each other’s commitment to the wellbeing of the community and their experience engaging with community.

“You think it’s too much work to knock on doors to get to the know the community, but you want to represent them as their spokesperson,” Edwards said about Ramson.

“The residents of the 11th District deserve representation that puts their concerns and needs before any other considerations,” Woodards said.

Edwards said it is her stance to continue to work for and with the community, just as she did when she knocked on doors to get signatures for her candidacy and as she does when collaborating with community-based organizations and faith-based organizations.

“Jocelyn told me, ‘Don’t hate the playa, learn the game,’” Edwards said. “I didn’t realize this was a game and I will never be a part of the political machine.”