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Brown: Parking meter swap nothing to brag about — but something to accept

Updated: July 5, 2013 2:41PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to get political mileage from a revamped Chicago parking meter contract by swapping longer hours for free Sundays falls under the category of too cute by half.

But if I were an alderman, all things considered, I’d vote for the deal Wednesday — assuming I didn’t represent one of the handful of wards singled out for extra gouging by Emanuel’s proposal.

On Monday, Emanuel’s team put the finishing touches on a convincing case that the deal they struck is too good to take a chance on screwing it up if negotiators were instructed to try again without the free Sunday parking.

The agreement eliminates a potential $1 billion exposure the city now faces from claims at issue in a pending arbitration with Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

If the city lost the arbitration, might the eventual award end up being something that costs less than the full $1 billion? Quite possibly, but even it only saves the city a half billion, there’s no sense taking that risk.

I’m no fan of the free Sunday parking swap, which comes at the expense of those who will be stuck paying an extra hour the rest of the week everywhere that the meters now stop at 9 p.m.—and two more hours on top of that in River North and Streeterville. It plays one set of parkers (voters) off against another.

It’s a political gimmick intended to give Emanuel cover for all his tough talk that might have led some to believe he had a real solution to the meter debacle he inherited from Rich Daley.

Plus, as testimony Monday from a Lakeview business leader again made clear, the free Sundays could prove short-lived in many neighborhoods as aldermen come under pressure to restore meter collections to help create turnover of on-street parking spaces.

Unfortunately, the city can’t remove the Sunday swap altogether from the settlement agreement without opening up the whole deal to further negotiation. There’s bound to be something in the agreement giving Chicago Parking Meters second thoughts as well. The downside of free Sunday parking doesn’t outweigh that.

Over the last several weeks, city Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton and Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott have made this point over and over while deftly defending Emanuel’s parking deal in public hearings and private meetings with aldermen.

Patton may be the smoothest operator before the City Council of anybody I have ever seen in his position, and that covers a lot of good lawyers.

He has told the aldermen that if there was a legal means to nullify the parking meter contract, he would have embraced it, and I believe him. Nothing would have made Emanuel happier than to be the guy who saved Chicagoans from the hated parking meters.

On Monday, Patton and Scott buttressed their case with a surprise outside review of the parking meter settlement agreement conducted by Navigant, a Chicago-based consulting company.

The Navigant study was intended to provide the independent “second opinion” that several aldermen had sought. While it’s not quite what the alderman wanted — they had no say in shaping what the consultants studied — it helped satisfy my lingering doubts over whether Chicago Parking Meters would realize another windfall from extending meter hours at night.

The consultants say it won’t. In fact, they say the city should make out slightly better than it had projected in the trade for free Sunday parking.

The last thing I want to do here is undercut the effort by a small group of aldermen who have taken the lead in holding Emanuel’s feet to the fire on the parking meter deal. I’m talking mainly about Scott Waguespack (32nd), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Ameya Pawar (47th), John Arena (45th) and Robert Fioretti (2nd).

The work they have put into analyzing the mayor’s proposal is exactly the approach Chicagoans should be able to regularly expect from members of the City Council, unlike those who endorsed the agreement within 24 hours of receiving the actual documents for the first time.

In this case, though, they haven’t come up with anything to show me that the flaws in Emanuel’s approach outweigh the importance of limiting the city’s losses under the original odious contract.

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