“Speaking truth to power” is more than a cliché—it’s what watchdogs do every day when they shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable—but too often power doesn’t listen.
A recent example is the lack of meaningful action following a July story by the Better Government Association and Crain’s Chicago Business about a shell game local officials played in 2014 to quietly divert $55 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars from economic development near McCormick Place to construction at a premier tourist venue, Navy Pier.
City of Chicago TIF dollars, which come from the same property tax pot that funds schools and local government, are limited by statute to projects designed to give “blighted” areas an economic boost.
Construction of a new hotel near McCormick Place arguably qualified because the project was in a TIF district in the city’s 3rd ward, which has struggling areas that need assistance.
But our investigation revealed, through documents and emails obtained via open records requests, that the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that runs McCormick Place and owns Navy Pier, never needed TIF money to build the hotel—it had enough resources of its own.
MPEA and Emanuel administration officials were apparently planning all along to quietly redirect the $55 million to a Navy Pier rehab project that did need the cash, even though Navy Pier’s obviously not a “blighted” area and doesn’t qualify for TIF funds.
The real intent wasn’t disclosed at a 2014 City Council hearing on the hotel plan, and 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell said she was “blindsided” by our disclosures. “Navy Pier was not involved in any of this, as far as I know,” she said. “There needs to be transparency on how these deals go down,” she added later.
Several reform aldermen also complained loudly, and one urban affairs expert called this “an egregious example of the biggest problem with TIF: It takes money and purposely obfuscates the goals of economic development. Decisions are made behind closed doors.”
Dowell promised a public hearing on the sleight-of-hand, but a funny thing happened at a meeting of the City Council Finance Committee a few days after the story broke: Officials from MPEA and the city Planning Department showed up, huddled with Dowell in a back room behind the Council Chamber, then defended their actions to the full committee. Some aldermen criticized the shell game but there was no in-depth discussion of the emails we found confirming TIF dollars were never intended for the hotel project, or why those dollars were unnecessarily earmarked for the hotel in the first place.
In addition, no TIF experts were invited to the hearing, and community activists who reacted angrily to our disclosures weren’t there because they didn’t know the issue would be discussed.
After the hearing Dowell released a statement expressing satisfaction with the answers she got to the superficial questions she asked, and that was that.
I’ve been waiting since then for the possible reforms our story might have prompted: New transparency and accountability requirements for TIF projects, an investigation by the Chicago inspector general or the Illinois attorney general, an ordinance or lawsuit aimed at securing $55 million for other economic development that could benefit residents of Dowell’s ward, and maybe even the rolling of a couple heads.
But none of that’s happened, and Dowell’s willingness to let it slide speaks volumes about how the “Chicago Way” still pollutes local government.
Even so, the BGA and other watchdogs will keep “speaking truth to power” on this and other issues, so don’t give up hope because we’re on it.