Mayor Emanuel ensures parking meters remain in private hands

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Its up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to decide to fight the meter privatization deal
There's a major reason Chicago hasn't been able to get rid of its street parking privatization deal: because Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fought to keep it in place.

That's the gist of a ruling Tuesday afternoon by a Cook County judge, who found that the 75-year privatization agreement may be "a bad deal" but can't be declared illegal as long as the city claims to be benefiting from it.

At issue was a 2009 lawsuit filed by attorney Clint Krislov on behalf of the IVI-IPO, a public-interest group. The suit argued that the deal illegally privatized the government's right to set parking and traffic policy and restricted the options of future city officials.

But the city teamed with Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the company that controls the parking system, to contest the suit, even after Mayor Emanuel publicly vowed to pursue every avenue he could to get out of the agreement.

The city's position proved to be pivotal. Judge Richard J. Billik Jr. ruled that the citizens who brought the suit couldn't show they were personally harmed by the meter deal. If anyone was hurt by it, Billik said, it would be the city. Yet city attorneys agreed with CPM that the government and its constituents were benefiting, primarily through new meter pay boxes and the $1.2 billion in cash paid into city coffers up front.

"Defendants have shown that the city intended for the agreement to achieve certain public purposes," Billik said in granting their motions for summary judgment. Plus, "the city has worked to defend the deal against the plaintiff's complaints."

In fact, the agreement requires the city to defend it in court. And Mayor Emanuel has no intention of trying to break it.

"The city is aggressively doing everything within its power to ensure that the city's interests are being vigorously asserted and protected under that agreement," says Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city's law department. "But the issue in the lawsuit was not whether the parking meter deal was a good one for the city, but rather whether the agreement was, on its face, unconstitutional. On that issue the law controls, and the city believed and the court agreed that the agreement was not illegal."

As you'll recall, the deal gives CPM the authority to issue parking tickets. It also requires that the city reimburse the company every time it takes metered parking spots out of commission for street repairs, a festival, the NATO summit, or anything else. Krislov's team argued that these provisions unconstitutionally grant police and legislative powers to a private company for its own financial gain.

The judge, though, agreed with the city that it retains control of the streets, even if it has to compensate CPM any time it does anything with metered spaces. Billik repeated the city's argument that these repayments involve "a relatively minimal amount" compared with the $1.2 billion exchanged at the front of the deal.

That's different from what the mayor's been saying in public. "I do not treat the city taxpayers as an ATM," he declared after CPM submitted a $13.5 million bill last year. Earlier this summer, he told the Sun-Times he wouldn't pay a $50 million tab. "I do know the parking-meter management team now knows there's a new sheriff in town," Emanuel said. "Don't send a bill just thinking we're going to sign it."

As part of their argument that the city hasn't privatized its policy making, city lawyers noted that they've taken the billing disputes to professional arbitrators.

Outside the courtroom after Billik's ruling, CPM attorney Robert Sperling quietly urged city lawyers to quit fighting the bills.

"Just pay it!" said Sperling, an Emanuel campaign contributor who's a partner at powerful Winston & Strawn. Assistant corporation counsel Weston Hanscom indicated it wasn't his call to make.

Both men declined to talk to me.

Krislov, meanwhile, won't rule out an appeal. "Upon reflection, we may well decide to bring this to the appellate court, because we think agreements like this should be tested."

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