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Emanuel has right idea about ending sign changes

Updated: August 31, 2011 12:37AM

I don’t know if anybody could tell you exactly when the decades-old practice was started of Illinois politicians affixing their names to everything within their domain, but I can tell you exactly when it ought to end.


The change of city administrations from Mayor Daley to Mayor Rahm Emanuel has prompted the usual problem of what to do about all that taxpayer-paid signage around town bearing Daley’s name.

Emanuel said Tuesday he had called a halt to sign changes after news reports of replacement signs with his name going up within hours of him being sworn in.

In past regime changes, the city has always followed a policy of out with the old, in with the new, damn the cost, as the toadies in the bureaucracy crawled all over each other to get the job done.

The problem, of course, is that there is indeed a cost to changing the signs, a very real cost when you take into account all the city facilities and offices from one end of town to the other that currently carry Daley’s name — and all the city painters, glazers and carpenters it takes to carry out a change.

In fact, I’m told city officials have estimated the cost at $1.7 million to swap out one name for the other, along with the corollary job of distributing and hanging the obligatory portraits of the new mayor.

That compares to just $600,000 to erase the name of the old mayor and leave it up to the citizenry to remember who their new mayor is.

An Emanuel spokeswoman disputed my cost estimates, saying the mayor’s transition team had been told it would cost $150,000 to change all the signs in the city.

Even at that lower figure, Emanuel had instructed that there was no urgent need to change all the signs immediately and had ordered that only “essential” signs be changed, the aide said.

The only signs to be changed for now are the major signs at the airport and at city government buildings downtown, she said.

In those instances, Emanuel’s name will replace Richard M. Daley.

The spokeswoman could not give me an estimate of how many total signs will be changed, but it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be more than just the two of which the mayor told reporters he was aware.

Coincidentally, the Illinois Legislature waded into a very similar issue earlier this month when lawmakers approved a measure that prohibits state officeholders from putting their name, image or voice on any billboard or electronic message board touting state-administered programs.

The proposed law, now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s action, came in response to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich putting up signs with his name along the Illinois Tollway system when the I-PASS system first became operational in 2006 during his re-election campaign. It was reported at the time that those signs cost $480,000 in state funds.

“Promote the programs, not the politicians,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Nybo (R-Elmhurst), explaining the philosophy behind the law. The measure does not apply to local governments, nor to “welcome” signs, he said.

In that case, the city ought to pass an ordinance that stops the practice here as well.

The Public Building Commission, which handles the construction of major city projects, has a particular bent for using the names of the mayor and the local alderman on the billboards it erects at building sites. Some might defend this as accountability. I’d say it’s advertising.

The logical thing to do, as newly elected Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) bravely told our Fran Spielman, is to do away with all these vanity signs entirely.

“City of Chicago, Welcome” or “Welcome to Chicago” should suffice nicely at the airports.

And at the construction sites, there’s no need to plug the politicians. An explanation of the project and who is paying for it, along with who’s performing the work should do the trick.

By leaving off the politican’s name, you don’t have to worry about changing the signs after every election, not that we’ve been in the habit of changing mayors all that often.

If Emanuel would endorse the concept, he could say that he’s proposed $76 million in savings for this fiscal year, instead of the $75 million he announced Tuesday.

If there’s somebody out there at this point who doesn’t know he’s the mayor of Chicago, they don’t care.

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