Tax Dollars And Sense

Can we trust the Infrastructure Trust?

By Celeste Meiffren
Field Director

The City Council is set to vote on the creation of the Infrastructure Trust at the City Council meeting on April 18, 2012. But right now, the ordinance that creates the Trust lacks basic public protections. Given Chicago’s history with private companies buying our public assets at a discount with agreements that lack transparency and curtail public decision making, Mayor Emanuel and aldermen must go the extra mile to build in protections for the public.

Here is a list of the most important public protections that must be addressed before establishing the Infrastructure Trust, to ensure that taxpayers see the greatest possible benefits:

  • One: A mission statement that is pro-Chicagoan

The Trust will make many different decisions and can play many different roles. To make clear its priorities, the Trust’s mission statement should clearly state that the program is to be used for the benefit of Chicagoans, not private investors. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust should be established in the public interest, for the benefit of the people of Chicago now and in the future.

  • Two: A voting member of the Board that represents the best interest of Chicagoans

In order to operate for the benefit of Chicago residents, there should be at least one voting board member whose whole mission is to represent the best interest of Chicago residents, not private investors, private companies, or elected officials.

  • Three: Strong conflict of interest provisions for Board Members.

Members of the Board of Directors should be free from conflicts of interest and instead should represent Chicagoans as primary stakeholders. Among these provisions, members and their families should accept no gifts from investors or contractors; they should divest themselves of investments from these companies; and they should be forbidden from working for these companies for several years after serving on the board.

  • Four: Transparency of budgets and records

The Trust should require all board meetings to comply with open meeting laws and to allow groups to gather information and hear about decisions made by the board. Information used or discussed at board meetings, including agendas and meeting minutes and other supporting documents, should be made available to the public online. Spending and revenue information should be posted on Chicago’s transparency website, and private partners’ preferences for keeping business practices secret should not trump the public’s right to information. The Trust board proceedings should promote and facilitate heightened levels of transparency, accountability, and public participation to avoid corruption and patronage.

  • Five: Ensure that taxpayers receive the best value possible

The Trust should require an independent, third-party evaluation to determine whether or not the public is receiving a fair value and if there are other, less-expensive ways to fund a given project. These alternatives should include the possibility of the city creating its own special purpose entities with independent bonding power that could make use of low-cost public capital and charge similar user fees as a private entity would. Comparisons of alternative arrangements should include estimates of the fees charged in negotiating and completing deals with private partners and potential compensation that might need to be paid if public actions diminish the revenue of private partners. These substantial hidden costs were not at first evident in past infrastructure leases.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list of recommendations for the Infrastructure Trust, but rather the key policies most important when first laying the foundation.
 

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