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A month ago a City Council proposal to make a stack of public records public was put on hold when a key Mayor Daley ally worried aloud that posting information online might just “overwhelm” people.
This morning a nearly identical measure sailed through a council committee meeting in about 20 minutes, most of that time spent on rounds of congratulations, and alderman Margaret Laurino, last month’s snag, signed on as a chief sponsor.
Needless to say, the public may never know exactly why.
But at least it's good news: what’s become widely known as the TIF Sunshine Ordinance will almost certainly pass the full council tomorrow. It will mandate that the city’s Department of Community Development post extensive documentation about the creation and use of tax increment financing funds, from details about expenditures to records of city oversight, assuming those documents exist.
Aldermen Manny Flores and Scott Waguespack have championed the ordinance since the debacle that ensued when Republic Windows and Doors abruptly closed last year despite having pocketed $10 million in TIF funds that were awarded in exchange for a promise to employ hundreds of workers through 2019. The aldermen were frustrated at the city’s inability to recover the money or explain what they’d done to hold Republic accountable for it. It turned out that there wasn’t much to explain—another good reason for requiring that the city show what’s happening with these deep pools of taxpayer money.
Aldermen, activists, and techies enthusiastically endorsed the proposed ordinance at a hearing last month, but Laurino, who chairs the council’s economic development committee, surprised even its chief sponsors by abruptly announcing that she had no plans to call it for a vote, citing various loose ends and the apparent confusion that could be wrought by making the information public.
Over the last month, Flores and Waguespack agreed to delay implementation of the ordinance from “upon its passage” to July 30 so that Community Development could have a little more time to sort out logistics. They also agreed to drop any specific mandates about the format the documents should be posted in—they’d hoped to force the city away from cumbersome PDF files that are difficult to search but decided it wasn’t worth it to hold out.
By today’s meeting Laurino was on board, a good indication that the ordinance hadn’t been quashed from above, and the only real question was which of the ten aldermen present wouldn’t want to sign on as chief cosponsors and take a little of the credit. The answer, it turned out, was none.
Several went so far as to declare that this should be the start of a much broader conversation. Alderman Richard Mell, alternately an apologist for the rubber stamp City Council and an impassioned spokesman for the worker, asked a Community Development official to put together some data for him on how much TIF money is being spent on school construction instead of the economic development the program is designed for (never mind that TIFs actually take tax money from the schools in the first place). And Flores and Waguespack vowed that this was just their first push for greater transparency in the budget process and lease agreements—a recurring theme of late.
In fact, by this morning the merits of the ordinance were themselves so transparent that Laurino was even calling them a “first step” toward better government. In an interview after the meeting, she said she’d always supported the ordinance—her previous concerns had been that Community Development needed to make improvements to its Web site.
“I just didn’t want to overwhelm [the public] with information, and I think that we have a Web site now that is clear,” she said. “I’m sure you visit Web sites several times a day. Some of them are good and some of them are bad. So it was really an issue of presentation.”