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No feeling the love on parking meters

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced changes parking meter contract thwill he claims will save city billidollars.Juan Gallardo Chicago parked Lake

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced changes to the parking meter contract that will he claims will save the city a billion dollars.Juan Gallardo of Chicago parked on Lake Street recently. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2013 6:37AM



Mayor Emanuel’s negotiators are looking for some love as they argue for City Council approval of the concessions they wrung out of the loathsome parking meter contract.

They’re especially proud to have driven down the cost of compensation for out-of-service meters by more than a billion dollars over the life of the 75-year deal — that’s $20-25 million a year — so they can’t understand why aldermen, journalists and civic groups aren’t showering them with more praise.

Instead, their financial projections, and their plan to trade free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods for extended meter hours in the Downtown area, keep getting strong pushback from numerous critics.

So what’s the problem? Well, one answer, to borrow a popular metaphor: The changes are like “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Emanuel himself called it trying to “make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.”

Either way, it means the original meter deal was so bad, and the contract so ironclad, it’s hard to make it feel much better.

A “little lemonade” won’t quench most people’s thirst, especially when it doesn’t roll back or freeze rates, which are apparently non-negotiable.

A billion-plus in savings is impressive. But over 70 years? Most of us will be long gone by then.

And the annualized benefit of $20-25 million? Good for the city budget but scant comfort to a gouged parker.

Some neighborhood residents may appreciate free Sunday parking — it’s a tangible sweetener and smart politics because that’s where most of the voters live — but it’s offset financially by longer meter hours where most of the entertainment dollars are spent.

So call it a wash.

There’s one more issue in play here — also political, not financial — and it has to do with the timing and context of the meter revisions.

Much of the resistance is coming from the same aldermen who joined reform coalitions in the council to push for laudable transparency and accountability measures.

They’re demanding a hearing on an ordinance that would protect taxpayers from any more reckless privatization deals, but it’s buried in committee and the administration hasn’t unearthed it.

The coalitions are also trying to expand the authority of the city inspector general, whose investigation of a questionable contract in the mayor’s office was initially blocked by the Daley administration, then by Emanuel, and finally by the Illinois Supreme Court, which said the IG’s reach is up to city officials, not the courts.

So there’s a new proposal to extend the reach, but Emanuel, who calls himself a reformer, hasn’t signed on, and that makes it harder for his team to get the benefit of the doubt on the meter changes.

Respect and cooperation go both ways.

So here we are, anticipating a showdown over the meter tweaks at Wednesday’s council meeting.

Emanuel is reportedly just one vote short, so mayoral power being what it is, and Rahm being who he is — Time magazine calls him “Chicago Bull” in a new cover story — the outcome is hardly in doubt.

But if his negotiating team expects to hear the accolades and feel the love, their boss should consider more bonhomie and less bull with his potential legislative allies, especially the ones who presumably share his reform instincts.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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