With Mayor Daley essentially asking for a blank check to pay for the Olympics, the taxpayers of Chicago could use a little boldness from their City Council. But Manny Flores, one of the few aldermen occasionally willing to stand up for good government, seems to be retreating from his vow to fight for a $500 million cap on public spending for the games.
Now, I don't mean to pick on Flores, who was pretty much alone on this one. In fact, he deserves some credit: at least he acted like he wanted to step up. Most of his colleagues have looked the other way as Mayor Daley changed his story about what taxpayers would have to shell out for the Olympics.
If you recall, the issue erupted in June, after Daley assured the International Olympic Committee he would sign its standard host city contract, which would obligate Chicago taxpayers to pay all cost overruns. The total has run into the billions for other host cities.
This was right on the heels of the parking meter debacle, and many aldermen were sensitive to accusations that they routinely rubber-stamp the mayor's costly ideas. As coverage of the host-city contract spread, Flores rounded up 11 of his colleagues to cosponsor an ordinance that would cap taxpayer risk at $500 million, a limit many aldermen thought they'd already established in a 2007 ordinance guaranteeing the city would cover overruns of the costs of putting on the games. (While that ordinance set a $500 million maximum, it included a giant loophole, granting the mayor authority to enter into "such further undertakings, agreements and documents as may be necessary or appropriate to the City's submission and implementation of its bid for the Olympic Games.")
The mayor responded to the Flores proposal by letting aldermen know a cap was absolutely unacceptable. To create the appearance of opening his plans to public scrutiny—in contrast to the way he pushed through the parking meter lease—Daley sent his Olympic planning team out to hold public hearings in all 50 wards (they're still being held). He also signed onto a council resolution calling for an independent study of financing for the games. The council then asked the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group, to coordinate the study, and the federation farmed out the project to the British firm L.E.K. Consulting. The report is due August 28.
Then on Sunday, August 2, Flores wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune in which he strongly suggested—without saying so directly—that he was backing off the cap. In its place he called for five "principles" of "transparency and accountability," including a publicly accessible listing of the bid committee's expenditures, contracts, and funding commitments.
After I read the piece I called Flores to ask if he was backpedaling. "It's not that I'm retreating," he said, but repeated a point he made in the editorial: "I don't think there's any way we can get the games with the cap and I don't want the legislation to kill the games. I think the games could be a real economic opportunity for the city."
Flores says neither the mayor nor his aides bullied or sweet-talked him—say, by promising to back him for Congress some day. In fact, he says they've never even talked to him about his proposal; he changed his mind on his own.
It's clear that Flores originally underestimated the repercussions of what he put forward. Had the council adopted it, it would have torpedoed Chicago's chances. The International Olympic Committee had made it clear that it would award the games to one of Chicago's competitors—Rio, Tokyo, or Madrid—if Daley tried to amend the host city contract by capping expenditures. Any alderman who voted for this measure would have immediately been vilified as the jerk who killed our city's Olympic dreams (though some of us would wear that bull's-eye with pride). In retrospect, Flores says, his proposal would've received no more than a couple votes—and he's not even sure his would've been one of them.
But even if it had no chance of passing, a public debate on the cap would have damaged Daley's Olympic efforts, shining a spotlight on the city's fiscal troubles—the soft underbelly of the Chicago bid—and providing a forum that could energize the opposition. Given all that, it's remarkable Flores found 11 aldermen to sign on in the first place.
Scott Waguespack of the 32nd Ward said he added his name because even though he has respect for the Olympics he thought the legislation was necessary. "I support sharing of cultures—I was in the Peace Corps, so I know what it's all about," he said. "But I think our track record of mismanagement of taxpayer dollars over the last few years has been dismal."
As for the other aldermen, most signed on with Flores because they were upset that Mayor Daley didn't consult the council before making promises to the IOC. Waguespack and 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, who also supported the measure, say the signatures shouldn't be viewed as evidence of a movement against the games, the mayor, or anything else. "You can sort of get caught up in the moment," says Moore.
In any event, the proposal was buried in the finance committee, and Flores says he has no plans to revive it. Instead, he says, he's going to push for a resolution calling for the city to adopt the reforms he outlined in his Tribune op-ed.
They include the creation of an "independent oversight committee . . . of respected civic, business, and law enforcement officials who have no financial ties to City Hall or the 2016 committee"—as if that were possible in a city where every public oversight committee I can think of, from the Community Development Commission to the Police Board, is controlled by the mayor, and even private businesses trip over each other to get access to him.
The way Flores sees it, the oversight body should monitor the finances of the 2016 bid committee, which still hasn't released a full list of its vendors and contributors. Bid officials have even asked for an extension on filing their 2008 tax-exemption statement with the federal and state governments. Now it conveniently won't come out until after the IOC's October 2 decision.
Flores also wants a full listing of "Olympic contractors and subcontractors." Sounds good to me. But if 2016 does this the way the city has—and its executive director is former Daley chief of staff Lori Healey—that list won't be complete or easy to find. The city supposedly posts all its contracts and disclosure statements online, but many contractors are exempt—such as the bond lawyers and investment bankers who oversaw the parking meter agreement.
Flores would also compel the 2016 committee to list all its expenditures, whether the money came from the public or private donors, and publish it "in an open and searchable database." Good luck with that one. As a TIF geek, I can tell you that the city has a tendency to be passive-aggressive with the way it releases public information. The Daley administration made a big deal about putting the 2007 annual TIF reports online—but they came down as soon the 2008 reports went up, making year-to-year comparisons impossible. Plus, the reports are posted as PDF files, which makes searching them and analyzing the data much more difficult. Other crucial documents, such as transcripts or minutes of CDC meetings, are nowhere to be found.
In other words, Flores asked the bid committee to do the kinds of things that the city already claims to do but really doesn't. If the past is any predictor of future—and it usually is—the 2016 folks will say sure, no problem, we were going to do this stuff anyway. And then they won't do it, just like they haven't done it in the past, as the City Council stands haplessly by.
Ben Joravsky discusses this column weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.