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Editorial: It’s up to Council to oversee the airports

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s allies used a classic Chicago shell game Wednesday to keep off the Nov. 8 ballot an advisory referendum on creating an elected board to run O’Hare and Midway airports. The aldermen slipped three other questions on the ballot, which is the maximum, leaving no room for the airport referendum.

Parliamentary machinations are not an admirable way to set public policy. But in this case, we have to admit, a bad idea was snuffed.

Chicago doesn’t need another elected board that just leaves the voters feeling clueless. Who can reel off the names of those sitting on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District or the Cook County Board of Review? How many Chicagoans can name the many judges who will be on the Nov. 8 ballot?

Chicago already has an elected board responsible for oversight of the city’s two airports: the City Council. It even has an Aviation Committee. Maybe the Council should do its job a whole lot better.

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It’s hard to disagree that there’s plenty of need for better oversight and more open management of the airports. Billions of dollars worth of contracts flow through O’Hare and Midway. The airports’ operating budgets are separate from the City of Chicago’s. Former Aviation Committee member Bob Fioretti notes that O’Hare alone has more employees than the City of Chicago.

Yet Aviation Committee meetings are perfunctory, and the agendas are a joke. Last July, the Chicago Board of Education’s agenda was 200 pages — yes, 200 — and it included detailed reports explaining each item the board members were asked to vote on. The Aviation Committee’s agenda for the same month? It had just two items and no details. It didn’t even fill up a single page. People planning a charity bake sale put out more informative agendas.

Aviation Committee meetings often are short. Few questions are asked. Too often, the number of aldermen showing up are too few for a quorum. And good luck finding any minutes of the meetings.

The airports have no shortage of major issues. Airplane noise affects neighborhoods throughout the area. Whether airport workers are fairly paid is a continuing debate. The vast amount of money flowing through the airports needs careful analysis and explanation. But there’s not a reason in the world the City Council cannot delve into those issues, behaving like a serious legislative body.

Remember, the Council now has a its own financial analyst, Benjamin Winick, to help aldermen understand complicated money matters.

The airports are economic engines for the entire Chicago area. The Council should be ensuring they are operating with the best possible practices.

What we don’t need is another layer of elected government. We have a City Hall. We have a City Council. That should do it, if they would only do their jobs better.

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