by Mick Dumke
Alderman Tom Allen told the members of the City Council’s finance committee that the ordinance he was proposing, which would place a temporary hold on privatization deals, was just a simple little thing that they might find helpful when they try to, you know, do their jobs.
“It’s very narrow in its scope,” he said. “It deals with the sale and lease of city assets that would reap a revenue of over $100 million in value, and basically it gives us a little more time to do these sales, to deliberate more, to hold public discussion, get citizen input, and get some objective, neutral financial analysis to give us some guidance.”
His colleagues seemed pretty sure that stuff all sounded good, if not altogether familiar. But as Allen went on to say that his ordinance would require a review period of 30 days before the city cut any more big privatization deals, he set off a vigorous debate about the merits of the meter deal they rubber-stamped six months ago as well as the wisest, fastest way to cover their asses for it.
The parking meters have become such a political problem out in the neighborhoods that even Mayor Daley’s most loyal aldermen are feeling exposed.
In the past few years the 12th Ward’s George Cardenas has flipped his vote at Daley’s request, floated the mayor’s unpopular ideas for him, and delivered the administration's speeches on the council floor. But this time he didn't sound so happy about taking hits for the Boss.
He grew especially prickly when Gene Saffold, Mayor Daley’s chief financial officer, said a month-long waiting period was a lousy idea--a "risk to the city"--because interest rates could swing dramatically in that amount of time, ruining a deal carefully negotiated over the course of months.
“Isn’t it true there’s also a risk in rushing through a tremendous asset sale of a billion-dollar proportion without any pre-planning of the cost to the city in revenue, reputation, and political capital?” Cardenas asked.
“I would not want to come up with the kind of process that results in rushing,” Saffold told him.
That inspired guffaws.
“But that’s what happened!” Cardenas cried out. “You have to come up with a plan … and present it to this body so that we understand it and everybody can feel comfortable voting on something that we know works for this city, works for our constituents, and works for us politically. That's your responsibility!”
"There's plenty of blame to go around," said Ed Burke, the finance committee chairman, who then noted that the council didn't need a new law to extend its deliberation time. “Any two members can defer the report of the committee until the next City Council meeting and in effect get the time you were looking for.”
Richard Mell, who at the time of the meters vote admitted he often didn’t read through things he voted on, said he thought Burke was being unrealistic. “For the last one, if two people had stood up and moved to defer and publish this they would have been heaped with scorn for holding up the deal because we were told we had to do this immediately.”
"But wouldn't they now be seen as prescient?" Burke said.
Eventually the conversation shifted back to Saffold. Scott Waguespack wanted to know why aldermen hadn’t been shown the city’s financial analysis of the meter deal before being asked to approve it. “Can you make a definitive statement today on what information you think can be shared with the City Council before a vote on a major asset sale?”
Saffold hedged. “I wholeheartedly support the council’s need for information,” he said. But he insisted it wouldn’t be a good idea for the administration to share information with the council before the bidding process is through—otherwise bidders might be tipped off about what they should offer.
In that case, Waguespack said, maybe it would be helpful not to ask the council to approve another lease agreement just two days after the bids were opened.
Aldermen, though, still weren’t happy with being shut out of the process until late. “At some point in time you made the decision that this is a deal we can go with,” said west-sider Ed Smith. “Then why would it be a problem once you’ve decided to go with the deal to come here and give us that information?”
Saffold said he would—once the winning bid had been selected and the deal was in place.
Smith said something had to change because too many people were too pissed off. “We are getting beat to death on this parking meter deal," he said. Voters "are really giving it to us because it appears some mistakes were made.”
No one contested that point.
The measure passed the committee once the waiting period was lowered to 15 days.