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The Road to 2016

Is paved with rubber-stamp votes like the City Council's decision on the Children's Museum.

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First the good news: 16 aldermen voted against Mayor Daley's proposal to stick the Chicago Children's Museum in Grant Park. That's 16 more than voted against his plan to put a CTA subway station in the bowels of Block 37, a $320 million white elephant that just may prove to be the single greatest waste of money this city has ever engineered—though the competition's pretty fierce.

Now the bad news. Last week's council vote indicates there's no guard against the mayor's next proposed gargantuan ransacking of the public purse: the 2016 Olympics. Grant Park is merely the first round of a much bigger fight to come, should the International Olympic Committee do local taxpayers the collective disservice of awarding Chicago the games.

Compared to the waste and destruction promised by the Olympics, the Children's Museum is chump change. After all, the museum only affects one little part of one park. And if it gets built after the inevitable court battle, it's going to cost the public just $4 million or so a year in the form of a Park District subsidy. The Olympics, on the other hand, threatens to devour prime lakefront parkland from Irving Park Road on the north side to 63rd Street on the south and will undoubtedly cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, the Children's Museum will at least be open to Chicagoans. The only way average residents will get into any Olympic events is if they're selling popcorn. The games' real legacy will be the bill.

Let's put aside for a moment the pros and cons of moving the museum to Grant Park. The fight waged in the City Council last Wednesday was really about Mayor Daley flexing his political muscle to assure the IOC that his word is law in Chicago. If there was ever any hope for a check to keep the mayor from exercising unlimited power it was the council, which by law has the final say on just about every major project he proposes. But that hope died during the June 11 debate, as alderman after alderman rose to affirm his subservience.

I had no delusions that the aldermen were going to cast their votes based on a careful analysis of the pros and cons. But I did think political self-interest might carry the day. Forty-second Ward alderman Brendan Reilly was against the Children's Museum coming to this corner of his ward, and given the City Council's long tradition of aldermanic prerogative, I figured he had a shot at getting it defeated. It's not like Reilly didn't warn his colleagues. "He told them all—if they do this to me, they can do this to you," says one aldermanic aide. But when push came to shove, Reilly's colleagues hung him out to dry.

They had their reasons. Mayor Daley plays rough. He let aldermen know that he would cut off funding for pet TIF projects if they didn't vote his way. Obviously, the tactic was effective, though several waited until the final days to cave. The biggest disappointment has got to be Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti. His ward borders the 42nd, and by most accounts his constituents were strongly opposed to the plan. Plus he has no reason to fear Mayor Daley—he has enough in his campaign chest to beat any challenger the mayor throws his way. If nothing else you'd think he would've learned a lesson from Madeline Haithcock, his aldermanic predecessor. He ousted her last year in part because she alienated many constituents by approving zoning and land-use deals they didn't want.

This is the second time in the last six months that Fioretti has betrayed his community to bend to the mayor's will. In January he buckled under pressure from lobbyists Terry Teele and Terry Peterson—two former top-ranking mayoral aides—and voted to divert $75 million from a local TIF to fund Rush Hospital's massive rebuilding program. The TIF had been set up to build local schools and parks—none of which have been built.

"His constituents are going to be really upset," says Peggy Feigel, a member of the Friends of Daley Bicentennial Park, which opposed putting the museum in Grant Park. "I have no idea why he flipped, but it was a surprise. Up until the last days he was saying, 'Don't worry.'"

Fioretti says he had originally promised Reilly he would vote against the museum, but then the museum modified its plans. "I spent ten days agonizing over this decision," he says. "I finally sat down and wrote an opinion taking out the emotion for each side of this case. In the long run I felt it was the right decision."

He said it's just a coincidence that he wound up siding with the city's most powerful politician as opposed to the residents who live just down the street from his ward. He said he didn't talk to the mayor about the matter and that the Daley administration influenced his vote with neither threats nor promises.

The second biggest disappointment was 22nd Ward alderman Rick Munoz, long a stalwart of the council's independent faction. "We thought he was a shoo-in," says Feigel. "I can't believe he voted against us."

Munoz says he just thought the museum was a good fit for Grant Park. "The museum has a lot of good partnerships with schools in my community," he says. "The expansion is really a good thing." According to council sources, however, in the closing days the mayor's people let Munoz know that if he wanted TIF deals in his ward—in particular a new indoor running facility—he'd have to play along. "When kids are running on that track in five years, no one will remember this vote," says one City Hall insider.

I guess I should cut Munoz a little slack. He's been a dedicated independent since he joined the council back in 1993. Two years ago he made it clear that he wanted to move on when he announced he was running for Congress. But the incumbent, Luis Gutierrez, double-crossed him—along with First Ward alderman Manny Flores—when he flip-flopped and ran for reelection after telling everyone he was stepping down. Now the speculation in the council is that the mayor will back Munoz over Flores, who voted against the museum, whenever Gutierrez really does give up his seat.

It does seem as though Daley has a special fondness for onetime independents who knuckle under his command. So far he's thrown millions of TIF dollars into Wilson Yard, alderman Helen Shiller's pet project. On the other hand, what the mayor giveth, the mayor taketh away. He's not averse to promising an alderman one thing when it comes to TIF spending and then doing something else, as aldermen from Eugene Schulter to Leslie Hairston can tell you. So I guess time will tell what Munoz got for giving the mayor his vote.

Feigel says 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett was another disappointment to her group. And like Fioretti, Burnett could be in hot water for his "yes" vote—his ward also borders the 42nd, and he also voted for the Rush Hospital deal. Clearly, he's counting on the mayor and Secretary of State Jesse White, his mentor, to pull him through come 2011.

Then there's 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith, chairwoman of the council's committee on parks and recreation. For the record, she never pledged her support to Feigel's group in the first place. Still, Feigel was hoping that maybe, just maybe, she might vote their way. After all, opposition to the deal was widespread in her north lakefront ward.

In Smith's case, though, that's not much of a deterrent. The last time she voted with the mayor against her constituents was in 2004, when the city set up a naval academy in Senn High School. Dozens of residents vowed to make her pay in the 2007 aldermanic campaign. But she easily bounced two opponents from the ballot on technical challenges and ran unopposed. Now she's free to thumb her nose at her constituents, anoint her own successor (probably state rep Harry Osterman), and retire on a full pension.

On the bright side, if there is one, the south-side ladies were united. Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell, Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, and Seventh Ward alderman Sandi Jackson all voted against the mayor and his museum. Of course, they have the most at stake in resisting the mayor's pet projects. The soaring property taxes brought on by the Olympics will hammer hardest at their constituents. More than one astute observer of real estate has speculated to me that the Olympics is really a clever way of clearing out the south side, accelerating gentrification from Bronzeville to South Shore.

It's about time the south lakefront aldermen took a stand, if only to protect the interests of their residents. As they must have learned from last week's vote, they won't be able to count on much help from their colleagues on the council.v

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