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Aldermen are already sweating about the 2010 budget process about to heat up at City Hall, because it's clear they're going to be forced to raise taxes, fines, and fees, dip into reserve funds, make additional staffing and service cuts, sell off more city assets, or all of the above. Such is the dilemma facing a city half a billion bucks in the hole.
So even though they've taken all kinds of hell for hastily approving the parking meter deal, most are glad to have the cash from it, some of which will go toward keeping the city afloat in 2010, as it did this year. "Whether we like the agreement or not, the meters are something of a saving grace for plugging this deficit," 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney told me the other day. "I don't like the idea of using our capital assets to pay for operating deficits, but this is a tough time."
It's not hard to imagine Mayor Daley using that same argument to push another privatization deal in the coming months, or the City Council bitching and moaning as it goes along.
That's why a few aldermen introduced an ordinance today that would try to protect the council from the specter of its own rubber-stamping proclivities.
Scott Waguespack and at least nine co-sponsors proposed what he's dubbed the "Asset Lease Taxpayer Protection Ordinance," based on the stated premise that "any proposed privatization of a public asset should be done with goals in mind that extend beyond maximizing the initial payout for the asset."
It just gets more brazen from there:
* The administration would have to notify every member of the City Council as soon as it starts to explore the idea of leasing a public asset. The parking meter deal was hatched by a private consulting firm and mayoral aides months before aldermen were notified.
* A public hearing would be mandated at least a month before the council takes a vote to authorize a bidding process for the lease, and a second hearing would have to be held if the lease is to last more than 10 years or involve more than $100 million. The council held hearings on the meter deal after the city had completed its bidding process behind closed doors.
* The language of the agreement, along with subcontracts and all other "pertinent documents created in the process of formulating" a deal, would have to be made public at least a month before a council vote. Many aldermen signed off on the meter agreement before seeing it in writing, and it took more than half a year for the city to release many of the documents generated by the private consultants and lawyers it hired to help.
* "To ensure taxpayers receive fair value, no public asset worth more than $1 million will be sold or leased without an independent third-party valuation of the resource to be sold or leased. The independent third party may not receive any financial benefits from the execution of a proposed lease agreement and may not have a direct financial relationship with, or be a subsidiary of, any firms that would stand to receive financial compensation from the execution of the lease agreement." In other words, the city won't be able to hire William Blair & Company to both determine the price of the asset and then make money from helping to sell it off.
* Any lease worth more than $1 million would be limited to 30 years or less, as opposed to the 75- and 99-year deals for the meters, downtown parking garages, and Skyway.
Waguespack said he enlisted outside watchdogs, including the leaders of Illinois PIRG, in drafting the proposal. "To me this is just common sense," said Waguespack, who cast one of the five nay votes against the meter agreement. "In these difficult economic times we need to make sure we don't let the mayor or anyone else pull the wool over our eyes."
A few months ago the council passed an ordinance requiring a 15-day waiting period between the introduction of a lease agreement and a vote on it, but Waguespack thinks something stronger is needed. "It doesn't really do anything," he said. "It doesn't say anything about the process involved."
But some aldermen are again voicing skepticism about the need for a new law, saying the problems would be solved if they started acting like a first-rate legislative body.
"We already have the right to say no," said Robert Fioretti of the Second Ward, who voted to approve the meter deal. "The council's got to start rolling up its sleeves and doing the work it was elected to do."