Mayor's allies protect City Council from plan to protect your tax dollars

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Ameya Pawar has the nerve to think the citys legislative branch is separate from the executive branch.
  • Ameya Pawar has the nerve to think the city's legislative branch is different from the executive branch.
First-term alderman Ameya Pawar is careful to emphasize that he's not an opponent of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's. He doesn't go around criticizing the mayor and he doesn't want to fight with him, largely because he hasn't had any reason to.

"Every single time I've had an issue, the mayor's office has worked with me," says Pawar, who's voted against just two mayoral initiatives since being elected to the City Council last year.

Pawar (47th) admires how Emanuel has vowed to do all he can to shore up the city's finances. As the mayor reminded aldermen on Wednesday: "I said we were going to change the way we look at things around here . . . to make sure taxpayers are being protected."

Yet Pawar is still astounded that minutes after Mayor Emanuel uttered those words, his top council ally moved to kill a proposal from Pawar that would protect the taxpayers.

Along with two of his colleagues—Michele Smith (43rd Ward) and Pat Dowell (3rd)—Pawar spent several weeks drafting an ordinance that would create an "Office of Independent Budget Analysis." The office, staffed by perhaps a single person, would provide aldermen with "independent and unbiased" reviews of annual budgets, privatization agreements, and other long-term contracts worth millions or even billions of dollars.

It's an idea that's been discussed off and on for years—that it would be good if the city's major financial transactions were thoroughly reviewed by experts who don't work for the mayor. Even better, maybe this could be done before the City Council had to vote on them.

The federal government, most states, and many other cities have such a process in place. New York City, for example, has an independent office that goes over budget proposals with a rake before they have a chance of being approved.

That's not how it works in this town. Emanuel and aldermen are now blaming rubber-stamped budgets and deals from the last few years for putting the city in a deep financial hole.

Four years ago Alderman Patrick O'Connor, the mayor's council floor leader, celebrated the parking meter privatization deal before voting for it with 39 of his colleagues. This week he had a different take. "Everyone in this chamber today knows that was a bad deal," he said.

O'Connor then helped win approval of Emanuel's latest money-making plan, a 20-year agreement to turn over public space to a billboard company. "This is not a bad deal," O'Connor declared. It wasn't reviewed by independent analysts either.

Pawar was one of six aldermen to vote no. He says the council needs to be able to get a professional second opinion on such complicated agreements. "This is about the executive branch and the legislative branch," he says. "We should have the facts."

A total of 22 aldermen signed onto the proposal to create an independent budget office, and Pawar formally introduced it near the end of the council meeting Wednesday.

Since it has to do with budgetary matters, Pawar and his cosponsors applied a little logic and assumed it would be assigned to the council's budget committee. They talked about it with budget committee chair Carrie Austin, who promised to hold a hearing on it after the holidays.

Pawar then stepped into the council lounge to make a phone call—he says he was trying to persuade CTA officials not to cut the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus line.

But that happened to be the same time the clerk formally read the proposal into the record. Under council rules, once legislation is read, it has to be sent someplace—usually a committee, though in rare instances it can go straight to the full council.

If there's a dispute about where it should go, it's automatically assigned to the council's rules committee, whose chairman, Richard Mell, helps bury proposals that the mayor wants buried.

As soon as Pawar's legislation was read, Alderman O'Connor called out "Aviation."

If you're exploring all the possibilities, perhaps O'Connor thought the independent budget ordinance had something to do with airplanes. He didn't return a call seeking comment.

The proposal ended up in the rules committee. Pawar says he knows a parliamentary trick when he sees one. "I don't understand why the mayor's office is so concerned that the City Council will have more information. If their plans are that great, independent analysis will just confirm it."

A spokesman for Emanuel declined to comment on the proposal, saying the mayor's office is "reviewing" it.

Pawar hopes Mell will give the proposal a hearing. If he doesn't, Pawar says, "I'll just keep reintroducing it."

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