Blind faith

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Quite a few aldermen fretted aloud Wednesday that the Daley administration was hurrying them to approve the unprecedented deal to privatize Midway Airport—in fact, many noted that they didn’t see the specifics of the plan until a few days before the meeting, and several told me point blank that they didn’t understand it well enough to know if it really was a good deal. "It’s a leap of faith," as Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle put it. They all voted for it anyway. It passed 49-0.

There was a simple reason for the seeming contradiction, according to 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, one of the most vocal worriers. "You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t," he said in an interview Thursday. And he decided he’d rather be damned for doing.

"It’s hard because it’s a budget crisis and you feel you have to do something about it, you have to bring some money in, but you feel rushed," he said. "The only reason all of us went with it is that some deal is better than no deal. The money is too good. And [city budget officials] made allusions to the fact that if we didn’t approve the deal now it might go down the drain and 'It’ll be your fault.' All these financial crises are putting a lot of pressure on us. I know my colleagues felt the same way—they just weren’t saying anything. If the economy weren’t what it was this would’ve been deferred."

Burnett said he’s still upset the council was put in that position, calling the administration "disrespectful" for assuming aldermen would sign off with just a few days to ask questions and scrutinize the deal. “The media even got the details before we did,” he said. "At the briefing all we heard was what we’d read in the papers. We go home and look on the internet and we read things that we haven’t even seen yet. We have a big responsibility, and I try to take it seriously. But you feel half-blinded."

Not known for publicly criticizing the administration, Burnett said a couple of Mayor Daley’s aides asked what had driven him to question the timing of deal on the council floor. "People were asking me, 'Are you all right?'—like there was something wrong with me," he said. "We just wanted some time and courtesy. We’re the ones who get blamed when things go wrong."

But some of his colleagues were banking on the assumption that voters wouldn’t be paying attention that closely. As one explained to me, privatizing assets gives city officials political cover to jack up fees on the public. If aldermen voted to raise the tolls on the Skyway or the price of parking downtown, citizens might actually get upset at them, he said—so why not let a private company do it and take the blame while the city gets its cut of the cash? By that time, people are likely to forget about the lease deal.

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