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McPier taking you for a ride

There’s a new attraction at Navy Pier — “The Big Spin” — and we’re not talking about a Ferris wheel that goes around at $7 a pop.

This is a verbal fantasy ride, courtesy of Navy Pier officials, but we’re not hopping on, and you shouldn’t either.

Here’s the background, courtesy of last week’s Sun-Times “Watchdog” story by Tim Novak:

A government agency — the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, better known as “McPier” — oversees Navy Pier and the McCormick Place convention center.

In 2011, McPier created a nonprofit — Navy Pier Inc. — to operate the Pier, but now they’re refusing to release any meaningful information about the Pier’s operation on the grounds that, as a nonprofit, it’s not a government agency and therefore exempt from the state’s open records law — the Freedom of Information Act.

In other words, go take a ride — we’re not showing you our books: Not payroll information listing salaries, benefits, bonuses and perks; and not contracting records to find out if anyone has a sweetheart deal, if minority-owned businesses are getting a fair shake, and if there’s competitive bidding.

Yes, a government agency helped create a nonprofit, and now, incredibly, it’s using that nonprofit as an excuse to withhold public records and shield its books from public scrutiny.

Here’s where the spin comes in: Pier officials tell us everything’s fine — we’re better off with the current management structure, taxpayers are being well-served, patronage is all but dead, and the operation is being run efficiently.

But they refuse to release documents to back up their claims.

Their logic is dizzying — we’re talking about a strip of public land known colloquially as the “people’s pier” — and it doesn’t engender much confidence.

Trust is earned, so where along the way did McPier earn it? During the scandals of the recent past — the kinky deals and political hiring that defined the agency for years? Hardly.

The Sun-Times’ reporting on the story included a request to the Illinois Attorney General’s FOIA office to facilitate transparency, but the AG sided with McPier, so recently the Better Government Association sued McPier and its nonprofit, hoping to pry open the books, and now it’s up to the courts.

The BGA’s not against privatization per se, but we expect any transition, and the operation of any new entity, to be deliberative and transparent, so we can examine why and how taxpayer-owned assets are being spun-off to corporations, investors and nonprofits.

Our concern about reckless privatization is justified by four words: The parking meter deal.

And sadly, a much-needed ordinance that might have averted that fiasco — it calls for a cost-benefit analysis, public hearings and enough time to digest a proposal before a public asset is privatized — still languishes in the City Council graveyard known as the Rules Committee more than a year-and-a-half after it was introduced.

Mayor Emanuel and the council majority are apparently reluctant to give it a hearing and a floor vote at this time, which is too bad.

And given the city’s track record, taxpayers are right to be concerned about a public entity morphing into a non-profit that could end up as a hotbed of patronage, mismanagement and sweetheart deals, all taking place behind closed doors.

That’s why we’re asking a court to force McPier and its nonprofit affiliate to open their books, if they still won’t do it voluntarily, so we can make sure they’re not secretly taking taxpayers for a risky, spinning ride.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@betytergov.org

Twitter: @ashawbga



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