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Parking-meter audit a slick PR move

Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:34AM



Rahm needed an easy one.

After all, Year II of his Mayoral Reign has been rough, with gang wars that produced frightening levels of violence in some communities and an intolerably high murder rate; an ugly teachers strike that roiled the city and left bruised egos and shattered labor relations in its wake; a nasty and very public feud with the governor over management of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority; an imminent city pension tsunami, and lingering concern over his new approach to infrastructure funding.

Enter the public policy fiasco and political pinata that keeps on giving — the parking meter mess — a deal that remains Chicago’s signature privatization fiasco, everyone’s favorite whipping boy and, thanks to the tone-deaf management style of its corporate owners, a juicy target for political points.

So Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking full advantage by ordering an outside audit of the city’s deal with Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

The city is refusing to pay a $14.2 million bill from the company for revenue lost during NATO while Emanuel’s financial team finds out if the meter owners are complying with their original commitment to minority and women-owned companies.

It’s a good public relations move for an embattled mayor who continues to openly attack the sanity of a 75-year, $1.15 billion lease that was forged in 2008 by a cash-strapped Daley administration and rushed through a craven City Council without due diligence.

Emanuel looks tough by sending a signal to the parking meter company — and, by inference, to other vendors — that City Hall is minding the store and guarding the cash register.

He also has ordered audits of other major privatization leases with the Chicago Skyway and downtown parking garages.

But the sad reality is that City Hall may not be able to alter these agreements. Emanuel can publicly scold and threaten and audit, but that may be more cathartic than effective if the disputes end up in court.

The city can drag its feet by disputing parking meter payments, but the stalling tactic could backfire if the company prevails in mediation, an option it’s reportedly considering.

And because the city already has spent most of the parking privatization proceeds, Emanuel can’t even make the dramatic gesture of returning the money and breaking the deal.

But at least the administration can learn some important lessons about the perils of hasty deals cut for quick cash without careful consideration. And that’s good because the Era of Privatization isn’t over. In fact, Emanuel’s nascent Infrastructure Trust is expected to be a major conduit for other city-based “public-private partnerships.”

A lot of us, including the BGA, will be watching this one closely on behalf of Chicago residents.

As for the infamous parking meter deal, we’re apparently stuck with this coin-sucking leech for a very long time unless something unforeseen occurs.

It is indeed the government gaffe that keeps on giving as we keep on paying.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at ashaw@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9097.



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