Andy Shaw: Who needs a park board when City Hall calls the shots?

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Meigs Field on March 31, 2003, the day bulldozers dug out portions of the runway and put large yellow X’s on the end on the runway. | Sun-Times Library

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Recent stories about Chicago parks and airports spark a memory with a message.

Maria Saldana got blindsided on the morning of March 31, 2003, when she turned on the news and saw the same pictures that stunned viewers around the world:

Giant X’s gouged had been across the runways at Meigs Field, the city’s lakefront airstrip, grounding commercial flights, stranding private planes and flabbergasting Saldana, who knew nothing about the overnight demolition plan, though she was president of the board that managed Meigs.

Only in Chicago.

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Meigs, you may recall, was a small airfield built on park district land that’s now Northerly Island.

I used the airport for Downstate reporting trips, and it was a convenient option for Springfield politicians, bureaucrats and business travelers.

We appreciated Meigs but Mayor Richard M. Daley didn’t. He viewed it as a concrete intrusion on the pristine lakefront and an unwarranted perk for Republican administrations that controlled Springfield for decades.

Daley wanted an excuse to get rid of Meigs, and the September 11 attacks in 2001 gave him one.

The mayor complained bitterly when federal aviation officials quickly established “no fly” zones over Disneyland, Disney World, New York City and Washington D.C. but not Chicago, despite our iconic skyscrapers — Sears (now Willis) Tower and the Hancock Building — a short flight from Meigs.

Daley’s protests fell on deaf ears so finally, on that fateful Saturday night in ‘03, his operatives carried out their secret bulldozing plan.

Political fallout was minimal because few Chicago voters used or cared about Meigs.

But the feds were furious, and the city ended up paying more than $1 million in fines and penalties.

I resented Daley’s blatant abuse of power, which inconvenienced thousands of passengers, but another transgression also bothered me:

His failure to consult Maria Saldana or her board until it was a fait accompli, raising a question that goes well beyond his tantrum:

Who needs a park board when its biggest decision is made by City Hall?

Or, by extrapolation, who needs the other so-called “sister agencies” with boards controlled by the mayor — CTA, CHA, CPS, Libraries and City Colleges?

Why not save millions in salaries and benefits by getting rid of those boards and their staffs, and letting an increasingly engaged City Council, with its extensive committee structure, hold the agencies accountable?

It would be an efficiency move, another way for aldermen to earn their pay, and a potential check on mayoral overreach. Win-win-win.

“I do think there’s an argument to be made that appointed boards can be good government,” Maria Saldana says, “if board members take their fiduciary responsibility seriously and hold their CEO’s accountable.

“But over the years these boards and agencies became more of an extension of the mayor’s office. Meigs certainly makes that point, but there are many others.

“These boards do not serve as a ‘check’ on the mayor’s power — things are decided behind closed doors — and board members pretty much roll over without much discussion.

“If they’re going to be an extension of the mayor’s office we’re better off getting rid of them because of economics and also because it makes for very bad government.”

Very bad indeed, epitomized by bulldozing an airstrip, a park board and good government rules at the same time.

Maria Saldana was a Daley appointee — an “insider” — who’s also an accomplished lawyer and businesswoman.

That makes her an excellent resource if city officials decide, even after all these years, to take her experience and its implications seriously.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.


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