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How can we ‘trust’ infrastructure plan?

Updated: May 19, 2012 8:14AM

Just once, it would be thrilling to see a brave City Council hold the new mayor’s feet to the fire. But that’s like asking the Cubs to win the World Series, hockey players not to fight or Illinois politicians not to pad their pensions.

On Wednesday morning, when our 50 well-paid, mostly part-time aldermen gather at City Hall, it will be — barring a miracle — to rubber-stamp Rahm’s Emanuel’s speeding-ticket cameras, a blatant revenue grab masquerading as a “save the children” safety measure. And to blindly approve the mayor’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a way to reward private equity firms, like the one where Emanuel once worked and made millions, in the name of rebuilding Chicago’s infrastructure.

All new ideas are not bad ideas.

Public-private financial partnerships can be honest and constructive. And aging cities require visionary ways to compete.

But not without checks, balances, accountability and transparency.

Emanuel talks about transparency as though it’s his middle name. But these two ventures — speed cameras and the infrastructure trust — say otherwise.

Administration officials have been hard-pressed to provide specifics when it comes to projected revenue in the case of the cameras. Or to detail the projects envisioned, beyond a non-controversial energy-saving proposal, when it comes to the Trust.

Aldermen and the city’s inspector general are cut out of critical aspects of the decision-making or oversight. And functionally, the mayor has created another “sister agency” operated by a five-member board, four from the private sector, appointed by the mayor.

The inspector general cannot investigate that agency or its appointees, just as he cannot, despite Emanuel’s pre-election pledge, investigate the Public Building Commission, which the mayor chairs, or the Park District, whose board he controls. These are separate silos of mayoral power.

And the Freedom of Information Act? Even when an ordinance allows for its use, the Emanuel administration has been masterful at denying press inquiries by invoking an exemption to block release of documents detailing the “deliberative process” of their decision-making. FOIA, as the law exists in Illinois, is often a joke.

Only seven aldermen stood up on Monday to say “no” to passing the Infrastructure Trust out of the Finance Committee: Brendan Reilly (42nd); Pat Dowell (3rd); Leslie Hairston (5th); Lona Lane (18th); Willie Cochran (20th); Scott Waguespack (32nd), and Ricardo Munoz (22nd).

They need more information.

So do we.

Like what kind of user fees or investor guarantees could be attached to individual projects?

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has spoken in favor of the Trust, citing the cash-starved city’s revenue needs. But even Pawar, who say’s he’s unsure how he will vote Wednesday, adds, “I don’t blame everybody for being skeptical . . . The concept is good . . . but I don’t like the way they rolled it out.”

With little public engagement, frighteningly little oversight and few details, it isn’t just a matter of how these proposals were “rolled out.”

But whether taxpayers will once again get rolled.

Like they were in the Daley parking meter deal.

And thanks, once again, to a lay-down City Council.

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