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The Works

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As 2007 turned into 2008, it was a bright new morning in the city of Chicago—or so said Mayor Daley in a state-of-the-city op-ed that ran in the Sun-Times on January 1. "2007 was winner for city, and '08 looks good," the headline declared, and the essay that followed was classic Daley rhetoric, dedicated to the proposition that his leadership has enabled our city to overcome tremendous obstacles, none of which can be laid at his feet.

In this case, he blamed the national economy (it's "slowing") and "Washington, D.C." for having "failed to act on critical issues." It's an interesting variation on the mayor's usual bogeyman—Springfield—and might have come as a surprise to his old pal President Bush, who was in town earlier this week in part to scheme with the mayor about securing the 2016 Olympics for Chicago. Back in 2004 Daley had the chance to help elect a more forceful advocate for federal urban spending; instead he all but endorsed Bush.

The mayor went on to claim that test scores are rising in the public schools because "we've stayed focused on teaching the basics in the classroom." Well, scores ought to be rising—the Chicago Public Schools instituted an easier test two years ago. And since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002 (its anniversary was the main reason Bush was in town this week) teachers have been forced to spend weeks of valuable time prepping students on how to take it. I guess that's what Daley means by "basics." Forget enhancing education by hiring teachers in art, music, and drama or improving sports facilities—the money simply isn't there.

In the meantime CPS is plowing ahead with the grim task of closing dozens of schools on the south and west sides. The education of countless kids will be disrupted as they're moved from one facility to the next—something middle- or upper-class parents wouldn't tolerate for an instant.

CPS officials tell me the problem is that they need more funding from the state. But what they really need is the $500 million in property taxes diverted by tax increment financing districts at the expense of the schools and other taxing bodies. Of course, Mayor Daley made no mention of his beloved TIFs in his op-ed.

The mayor did take a bow for better managing city finances and for naming a new police superintendent "whose job it will be to make Chicago even safer." But if Jody Weis's appointment is any example, it casts the first claim in a pretty dubious light.

The job opened up last spring when Phil Cline, the previous police chief, resigned after an off-duty Chicago police officer was videotaped beating the hell out of a barmaid—just one in a seemingly interminable series of police scandals. Daley named Dana Starks as Cline's interim replacement, and Starks quickly gained the support of the African-American community for the permanent post. But Daley favored FBI special agent Weis, and, ignoring the recommendations of his own search committee, offered him $310,000 a year to lure him here from Philadelphia.

That's $124,000 more than Cline had been making and roughly $94,000 more than the mayor himself earns. Daley said Weis deserved to be the city's highest paid employee because he was taking on the additional responsibilities of heading the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which oversees the 911 system. Thing is, that office already had an executive director: Tony Ruiz, who'd been hired in June, just five months earlier.

Moreover, bringing in Weis raised the problem of what to do with Starks. Daley didn't want to rile the black community by unceremoniously dumping him—back in the early 80s, Mayor Jane Byrne helped ignite a black political movement by dismissing high-profile minority appointees in favor of whites. So he defused the issue by naming Starks to replace Clarence Wood as chair of the Chicago Human Relations Commission. Wood had served on a part-time basis, making $67,000 a year—far less than Starks was earning with the CPD. The mayor dealt with this by making the position full-time and hiking the salary to $120,000.

So by the time Daley was done he had two guys doing the same job that one man used to do at the Office of Emergency Management and another guy doing a job his predecessor did for almost half the money. This game of political musical chairs cost taxpayers an extra $177,000. It truly is good to be king.

Near the end of the op-ed Daley made a pitch for the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation—the latest euphemism for what they called urban renewal back in the 60s, when his daddy was boss. The plan, Daley writes, "helps residents transition to a better life."

For better or worse, the plan is Daley's greatest achievement. It's certainly helped spark a real estate boom. But I have no illusions that it's intended to make a better life for the poor. Over the last decade lower-class residents have been priced out of one neighborhood after another—right now it's happening in Bronzeville, Uptown, East Garfield Park, and Lawndale, just to name a few. Generally, the city abets the process by selling off vacant land—though not always to the highest bidder—and giving developers breaks using TIFs to build condos that aren't affordable to people who make Chicago's median income..

I suspect the steadily rising property taxes that result will give us trouble down the road, though the mayor urges us not to worry: "Our city's bond ratings remain at historically high levels and we continue to implement hiring and contracting procedures that are fair and objective and prevent misconduct."

Noelle Brennan, the lawyer named by a federal judge to oversee hiring practices in the wake of several scandals, might beg to differ: she just issued a damning report that's completely at odds with Daley's blithe assessment of the city's employment and contracting practices. As for the bond raters, they don't offer much assurance for ordinary taxpayers. They've determined that the mayor will be able to pay for any obligations he assumes by raising property taxes. If he winds up taxing people out of their homes, so be it. As Daley writes, "the path to progress sometimes travels along a bumpy road."

Finally—inevitably—the mayor touted the 2016 Olympics as "something that could boost our city for decades to come." If the king gets his wish, more's the pity for his kingdom.v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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