Cook County to try small business grants again after race suit

Ten months after announcing but then stalling a grant program to help small businesses that struggled during the pandemic, Cook County is preparing to relaunch it.

The so-called Source Grow Grant program, announced last September, was halted after a white business owner sued, claiming it was discriminatory and treated applicants “differently based on their owners’ race, and specifically prioritizes ‘persons of color.’”

The suit left applicants hoping for a piece of the $71 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding in limbo. Though the county denied the program was discriminatory, it officially pulled the plug on it in March, opting to “restructure and redesign” it. Now successful applicants likely won’t see payouts until early next year.

The Finance Committee on Wednesday approved the redesigned program, which will head for a vote of the full board on Thursday. Businesses that applied in the previous round can try again when applications open up in July, Irene Sherr of the county’s Bureau of Economic Development told commissioners Wednesday.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presides over a board meeting in 2019. A new county policy to give 12 weeks of paid leave to county employees heads to the full board for a vote on Thursday.

The new $40 million program — up from the $25.5 million initially set aside — will provide cash grants and free coaching to small businesses in Cook County affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Veteran-owned businesses will be prioritized, along with suburban businesses with fewer than 20 employees in areas including arts and entertainment, child care and social assistance, hospitality, retail, and transportation and warehousing. The details did not mention any goal of addressing “the racial wealth gap,” as was the case when the county first tried to set up the grant program.

Grants will be given based on revenue size: Those with 2019 gross revenue between $20,000 and $50,000 can receive $10,000 grants, while businesses with revenues over $50,000 can receive $20,000 grants.

The application portal will open in mid-July and stay open for four weeks. Grants are scheduled to be distributed by January.

Separately, a new county policy to give 12 weeks of paid leave to county employees passed unanimously. It heads to the full board for a vote Thursday.

Eligible employees could be the birth parent or non-birthing biological parent, the “intended parent of a gestational surrogacy,” or the adoptive or foster parent of a child 17 or younger. The policy is subject to collective bargaining, and other elected county offices would have to adopt the policy independently.

Those other offices have been “assured that the funding will be there in the budget, easily,” to apply it internally, but “it’s really up to them,” said Commissioner Bridget Degnen, the lead sponsor. “I think it’s incumbent on all of us as commissioners” to encourage other county offices to take up the change, she said. Degnen is working to apply the same policy to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, with the support of board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Wednesday’s vote prompted emotional testimony from fellow commissioners about how a similar leave policy would have benefited them in past years.

Commissioner Josina Morita began to cry while recounting her experience as an employee of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, where she said she was denied maternity leave following the birth of her first child.

“So here I am, after three miscarriages, my first birth and having no support in government,” she said. “It really would mean a lot to the people going through the hardest time in their lives, just having time to heal physically, to heal emotionally, and to go into that new part of your life.”

Aside from the health benefits of extended leave for parents, “updating the county policy is crucial to attracting and maintaining” the county’s current workforce that might otherwise opt to work at the city or a private company offering that benefit, Degnen said.

A county analysis found the policy would cost an additional $3.8 million in salary and associated payroll taxes. “This will also likely reduce our turnover costs,” Degnen added.

There was no discussion Wednesday ahead of approval of two major settlements tied to wrongful convictions that date back several years.

The largest — $7.25 million — is slated to be paid to Arthur Brown, who was already granted a city settlement for the same amount earlier this month. Brown served nearly 30 years in prison for a double murder in 1988, but his conviction was later overturned.

Brown, now in his 70s, was sentenced to life in prison after testifying to his role in the double murder: a fire that spread from a video store to a neighboring restaurant, killing two people. Brown testified that Chicago police beat him into a false confession and that county prosecutors made false arguments to the jury about the case. Another man, James Bell, later confessed to setting the fire.

Prosecutors continued to fight Brown’s appeals until a retrial in 2017, when one of Brown’s lawyers appealed directly to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Her office said that fall that prosecutors would drop the charges and he was immediately released from custody.

The office “determined there were significant evidentiary issues that raised deep concerns about the fairness of Mr. Brown’s conviction,” Foxx senior adviser Robert Foley wrote in an emailed statement at the time. The settlement is payable to Brown and his attorneys, Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila.

The other large settlement, $1.4 million, was paid to Marcel Brown and his legal team at the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University.

Marcel Brown was arrested in September 2003 for driving his cousin, Renard Branch, to the park where a teenager, Paris Jackson, was shot and killed. According to MacArthur, Chicago Police Department detectives and an assistant Cook County state’s attorney turned away Brown’s lawyer and ignored a request to make a phone call to his mother. After more than a day in custody, Brown eventually “made a series of false, ambiguous statements” about knowing his cousin had a gun and planned to shoot others at the park.

Brown was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but that conviction was vacated in 2018. Foxx’s office later dismissed all charges.

Brown’s legal team sued both the city and the county in 2019 for multiple violations, including of Brown’s due process and malicious prosecution.

The suit said Branch was not responsible for Jackson’s death, and while Branch did shoot at a group in the park, his bullets “did not strike Paris Jackson.” The assistant state’s attorney at the time “coerced false and inculpatory statements” from Brown, the suit claimed, because the team was “determined to close a murder case.”


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