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Two-and-a-half years after it was consummated, the infamous parking-meter lease deal won’t go away—perhaps because there’s 72+ years left of it.
Last week, for example, citizens submitted at least four questions about the city’s meter system or the deal itself during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two town hall meetings. The mayor called the use of meter funds to balance the budget a “smoke and mirrors” technique that his predecessor might have used but he never would.
Yet his staff answered the questions online in the most matter-of-fact way possible: “The money fed into parking meters goes to the firm with the contract to operate the meters. In return for the right to operate the system and collect meter fees, the company paid the City $1.2 billion in 2009.”
In case you didn't know.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Emanuel had a lot more to say about the meter deal—including the possibility that he might nix it.
But Emanuel's views of the deal and what can be done about it have shifted along with his political circumstances. Here’s a timeline:
October 17, 2010: In an interview with Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times soon after he launched his mayoral campaign, Emanuel agrees that the meter deal was “controversial” but hedges when asked if he would have entered into it himself: “It's not helpful or productive to say, would I have done something in the past. It's done. What are we gonna do going forward?... Inertia is the enemy of reform and this is going to be an era of reform.”
November 17, 2010: Mayoral candidate Gery Chico says he would take steps to replenish and protect the reserve funds generated from asset leases, while Carol Moseley Braun vaguely promises to find a way to scotch the meter deal altogether. Asked to respond, Emanuel says only that the deal “didn’t work” and that the money should have been used “to invest in key infrastructure, investments in making the city a more productive city economically so you can grow jobs.”
January 5, 2011: As the campaign ramps up, so do Emanuel’s statements about the meter deal. During a presser called to propose selling ads on the sides of garbage trucks, Emanuel tells reporters “he would use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to pressure Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners to renegotiate the 75-year, $1.15 billion lease that privatized Chicago parking meters to include more favorable terms for taxpayers and more moderate rate increases for motorists,” Spielman reports.
January 14, 2011: Or maybe not.
During a forum before the Chicago Tribune editorial board, Emanuel comes under attack from his campaign rivals. When the subject turns to the meters, Emanuel changes his stance from a few days before, saying this time that anyone who claims the deal can be scrapped or rewritten “is not being honest with the public” since most of the money has been spent.
April 25, 2011: Or maybe not.
Shortly after being elected, Emanuel is floating ideas for all sorts of things, from confronting the food desert problem to making the city more bike-friendly. He’s also ready to tell people what they want to hear about the parking meter deal.
In his first neighborhood appearance as mayor-elect, he tells an audience of hundreds at Alderman Joe Moore’s monthly 49th Ward meeting that members of his transition team are investigating the possibility of retooling or scrapping the deal. “Know that I have people on the transition—and more than a person—working on this,” he said. “I have some ideas and we’re exploring them.” He did not elaborate.
August 29-30, 2011: Or maybe not.
Emanuel continues to promise an honest, straightforward budgeting process that gets away from the quick fixes of the Daley years. "It's time we took control of our future," he tells an audience at the first of two public budget hearings.
The next day, Emanuel jokes on “Chicago Tonight” that the meter deal was helpful because it brought Chicagoans together. “There’s a difference on the north side, south side, and west side, and we have differences in economic and racial and religious [ways],” he said. “I’m proud that the city came together in unity in opposition to the parking deal.”
In seriousness, he adds, the deal “offends” him—but he can’t do anything about it. “The parking meter deal is particularly wrong. That said, we are stuck with the contract.”
September 6, 2011: I reached out to the city’s law department to see if city attorneys had looked into the issue at all, and if so, what they’d found. I got no response.
Contributing: Mark Bergen