Lurking behind talk of privatizing Midway Airport, by spinning off some or all of its assets or operations to investors, is the specter of Chicago’s infamous parking meter deal — perhaps the most reviled City Hall transaction in modern Chicago history.
On the surface, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking great pains to assure the public that any Midway transaction will not be a sequel to the parking meter fiasco.
He asserts that no Midway compact will be struck until it’s bathed in the sunlight of full disclosure. He has even appointed a blue-ribbon panel to “ensure transparency, integrity and thorough deliberation.”
While such good intentions are welcome, the public’s comfort level would be much higher if there were a law that established a clear set of rules to ensure an open, transparent and accountable process for every privatization transaction.
Unfortunately, the City Council, charged with keeping a watchful eye on such dealings, has not rallied to that important cause. The council has buried a proposed privatization disclosure act in the Rules Committee, where it cannot get a full public hearing.
The proposed Privatization and Accountability Ordinance was introduced by Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th.
The Better Government Association supports the spirit and intent of this proposed law because it creates a standardized, transparent and accountable process to use whenever the city wants to privatize any asset or service valued at $250,000 or more.
It strives to correct glaring inadequacies in the privatization process that gave us the parking meter debacle under the Daley administration.
For example, the city does not require that cost-effectiveness studies be performed to ensure that deals are financially necessary and sound. Nor does it require a public debate.
The proposed ordinance changes that by requiring a cost-effectiveness study that would be presented at a public budget committee hearing, providing time for public scrutiny and discussion.
The ordinance requires that, once the council approved a privatization deal, contracts will be awarded in a public, competitive bidding process to avoid conflicts of interest or other sleights of hand.
It also requires that vendors submit annual performance reports to ensure compliance with vendor standards.
These safeguards are important because Emanuel is open — some say eager — to privatizing public assets.
Residents must have a standard process they can rely on, and city officials must understand that they are being held publicly accountable for their privatization decisions.
The Privatization and Accountability Ordinance deserves a public hearing, but it won’t get one if it’s stuck in the Rules Committee, where it has languished since November.
In addition to the 32 aldermen who support the ordinance, public employee union AFSCME and the Illinois Public Interest Research Group in Chicago back the disclosure effort.
It’s time for Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, to move the ordinance to another committee so there can be a real public dialogue about privatizing assets and services in Chicago.
What’s the worst that can happen? We avoid another parking meter meltdown?
Emily Miller is the policy and government affairs coordinator for the Better Government Association.