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How to avoid another bad parking meter deal

This apocalyptic winter has been a painful reminder that Chicago periodically resembles the North Pole.

But fortunately, when mountains of snow block our streets and alleys, we can call an alderman to demand a city plow.

And when we’re tired of bone-rattling rides over pothole-riddled streets, we can dial 311 to request a city fill-in crew.

Responses may not be prompt, but at least we’re not powerless.

Sadly, that’s not the case when we’re dealing with hyper-enforcement of the city’s privatized parking meters, which are more frustrating at times than the polar vortex.

It won’t do any good to call and complain about airtight enforcement — not even to the mayor.

And the folks in the Edison Park neighborhood on the far Northwest Side know that all too well.

In a joint investigation with Fox 32 Chicago, we learned that Edison Park has been besieged with parking tickets written by the company that manages Chicago’s more than 36,000 meters.

Customers visiting neighborhood businesses have been slapped with tickets minutes after their meters have expired, or when they briefly gambled with unpaid meters during quick dashes in and out of stores.

But they have nowhere to turn because the city bargained away their right to exert any influence over meter management, maintenance and enforcement.

That power rests solely with Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the company that paid $1.16 billion to lease the meters for 75 years.

And unlike city government, the company doesn’t have to be accountable to the public — just to its bottom line.

That’s the danger of privatization deals — deals that are supposed to benefit the public and save tax dollars because the private sector can purportedly perform some services and manage some assets more efficiently and effectively than government bureaucracies.

But over and over, the infamous parking meter lease has rendered that supposition dubious at best.

Last year, the Emanuel administration tweaked the deal to save up to a billion tax dollars over the life of the contract, and provide free Sunday parking in city neighborhoods, in exchange for extended meter hours in the high-profit Downtown area.

“I’m trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon,” the mayor said at the time. But he shouldn’t stop there. Let’s ensure we don’t get stuck with any more lemons by preventing the city from entering into any other sour privatization deals.

Emanuel, as we’ve said before, can take a big step by giving the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance a full hearing before the City Council and the public.

The PTAO, as it’s sometimes called, might not be a perfect ordinance, but its intent is good — to ensure that every privatization proposal is studied carefully and deliberately, and taxpayers get ample opportunity to weigh in at public hearings.

For more than a year the measure has been stuck in the council’s Rules Committee, the perennial burial ground for reform-minded legislation, and that’s unacceptable.

It’s time for city officials to dig it out, debate it and massage it into shape.

If they think about their inability to provide constituents with relief from the ravages of the parking meter deal they’ll realize the pressing need to enact safeguards that protect people.

Because even though our private partners are paying for the privilege of profiting from public assets and services, they should still be held accountable.

And that requires an ordinance that allows our elected officials to sell a service or an asset without selling us out.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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