Another year has gone by and it appears that the Chicago City Council’s tradition of not being transparent is alive and well. After the disaster of a deal that privatized Chicago’s parking meters, there was a lot of talk of ensuring transparency and protections to make sure taxpayers never got ripped off again. Unfortunately, it looks as though the City Council is at it again — taking a short-term cash advance at the long-term expense of taxpayers and the public interest.
Last Wednesday, an initiative allowing conglomerate Interstate-JCDecaux, LLC to lease public space — in order to build 34 digital billboards up to 100-feet tall on city property alongside expressways — passed 43-to-6 through the City Council. The deal is expected to bring in at least $155 million over the next 20 years. While that may seem like a good chunk of change, the reality is we don’t actually know if this really was the best deal for Chicago taxpayers because the process lacked some commonsense transparency measures.
There was no open bidding process to assure that outside parties were able to evaluate the integrity of the final deal — did the City Council members learn nothing from the parking meter privatization deal? In this case, the Chicago Reader reported that only city officials and interested contractors were privy to the calculations. There was no independent financial analysis of this proposal, which is unacceptable when it comes to leasing public property.
We’ve said before, and we’re saying it again: With public-private partnerships, city councils should be involved in the decision to solicit bids. After all, that’s how they’ll have the information they’ll need to truly determine whether a final deal is the best one for taxpayers and the public interest. In this case, the City of Chicago began soliciting bids without City Council approval. And when the Council was asked to agree to a final deal, its terms were anything but easy to understand. Even Ed Burke, an attorney and an alderman for more than 40 years, confessed that he felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the terms of the agreement. The City Council had little more than a month and a half to approve the deal.
No matter how you feel about advertising on public property, the method in which the City Council approved this initiative is alarming. The fact is, nobody knows if Chicagoans are getting the best deal for these assets, and it’s shocking that after a series of privatization deals gone sour a Mayor who promised to be a harbringer of transparency is willing to cede control of these public spaces for 20 years to make quick money.
To prevent future bad privatization deals, the City of Chicago should embrace thoughtful principles for asset privatization, adopt rules to ensure that privatization proposals receive a thorough vetting before they are adopted, and fully embrace a commitment to government transparency.