For the last four and a half years, Chicago aldermen have been admitting that they messed up. In retrospect, they said, the city's 2008 parking meter privatization deal was approved too hastily, for too little money, with too many costly provisions buried deep in hundreds of pages of legalese.
After hearing from angry constituents, one alderman after another declared that they'd learned to stay clear of long-term agreements whose consequences and costs weren't fully clear. Some even vowed to pursue every angle possible to retool or undo the deal, perhaps by buying back the street-parking system or challenging the contract in court. Rahm Emanuel made the same pledges as he took over the mayor's office.
Instead, at Emanuel's behest, the City Council voted 39 to 11 Wednesday to approve a slightly reworked version of the deal that locks in privatized street parking for the next seven decades.
"Do any of us remember 2008?" wondered 2nd Ward alderman Robert Fioretti, who voted for the deal four years ago and has decried it ever since. "Did we not learn anything?"
Emanuel and his backers swore it was different this time. "I stand here as one of the guilty ones who voted for the original deal," said Alderman Joe Moore (49th), before arguing that the new one is a vast improvement. "I think the administration has done a remarkable job."
Moore and other supporters stuck to the mayor's talking points in stressing that there's no way to get out of the meter deal, so all the city could do was fight for a few changes. As a result, parking will be free on Sundays in most parts of the city in return for longer hours in the evening. And Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the private company that controls the system, agreed to reduce a bill it sent the city for taking meters out of service.
The problem is that none of the claims holds up under scrutiny. Since the financials are based on uncertain projections, as they were the last time, the public could very well pay more to CPM and its investors as a result of the Sunday swap. And the city may still get bills for removing meters in the years to come.
Worst of all, a number of attorneys have told me that by voting to approve the core of the meter deal again, the council made it even tougher to break or challenge in the future. In essence, Mayor Emanuel decided to trade a few concessions for keeping the deal in place for 71 more years.
None of that stopped supporters from praising the new agreement and the mayor who brokered it. "Mayor Emanuel has chutzpah!" declared Walter Burnett Jr. (27th). "You made the parking meter company give us back some money! Mazel tov!"
In addition to Fioretti, the opponents were Leslie Hairston (5th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Rey Colon (35th), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Michele Smith (43rd), Tom Tunney (44th), John Arena (45th), Ameya Pawar (47th), Harry Osterman (48th), and Debra Silverstein (50th).
Arena tried to look on the bright side. "In 2008 only five people voted against it," he said. "We more than doubled the opposition. That's progress in the city of Chicago."