Second time the charm for $3.5 billion O’Hare bond issue

SHARE Second time the charm for $3.5 billion O’Hare bond issue

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans (left) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk near a concrete demolition site after a press conference on the next step in modernizing O’Hare International Airport with the groundbreaking of the newest runway in Chicago on Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to issue $3.5 billion in bonds to bankroll a new runway at O’Hare Airport, and a host of other airport projects, sailed through a City Council committee Monday without a word of debate about minority contracting.

Last week, the Black, Hispanic and Progressive Caucuses joined forces to hold up the massive borrowing. It was a rare show of force aimed at pressing their perennial complaints about the shortage of blacks and Hispanics riding the gravy train of airport contracts and pinstripe patronage tied to city bond deals.

The 14-11 vote temporarily held up Emanuel’s plan to bankroll a new runway at O’Hare; a long-awaited overhaul at the international terminal; and other projects, and cost-saving refinancing of old airport debt.

The delay was expected to be temporary — and it was.

On Monday, the Finance Committee met again and approved the plan to bankroll an O’Hare makeover, which is one of Emanuel’s showcase projects.

There wasn’t a word of debate. Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Leslie Hairston (5th) voted “no” without offering an explanation.

They were apparently confident that the three-day delay had already delivered a message loud and clear to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown and to the banks and law firms that benefit so much from the parade of city borrowings.

So confident, in fact, that Brown showed up to testify again, but left without being asked a single question.

After the vote, Dowell released a letter to Emanuel’s assistant director of intergovernmental affairs outlining a series of demands.

They include: inclusion of black contractors “at all levels” on O’Hare and Midway construction projects verified by quarterly reports; disclosure of minority participation on the upcoming makeover of Midway concessions; a plan to address the “lack of diversity” in the Midway leadership team, including the promotion of Tiffany Green; and banning Chapman and Cutler from future participation on city bond deals until the law firm has “affirmatively demonstrated increased diversity in its partner ranks.”

Last week, Dowell called the Department of Aviation’s black contracting numbers “appalling.”

The “snapshot” of nearly $1 billion in construction and non-construction contracts issued during the one-year period ending on Aug. 31 shows 35 percent participation by minorities and women. That’s 10 percent higher than the set-aside goals of 25 percent for minorities and 5 percent for women.

But only 13 percent of those contracts were awarded to companies owned by African-Americans, and only 9 percent went to Hispanic firms.

The Aviation management team is 60 percent white, 20 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic.

In response, Evans emphasized that minorities make up 78 percent of the hirings she has made this year.

“We have improved the number of African-Amercians on the team. We have improved the number of Hispanics on the team. I completely acknowledge the concern. It’s a very, very important issue and there is more work to be done,” Evans said.

Evans acknowledged that in order to “change the trajectory” of minority contracting, the city needs to “change the way we do contracts” going forward.

Construction management contracts — an “area of strength” for blacks and Hispanics — will be “Target Market” contracts for which minorities compete, only against each other, Evans said.

“By contracting, rather than low-bid construction, we will get higher levels of participating,” she said.

But Evans warned that progress will take time. Contracts in the pipeline for months need to “play themselves out,” she said.

“Those teams have been set. Those subcontracts have been executed. We really aren’t in a position to influence those except to make sure people get paid on time,” Evan said. “But going forward in the future, we intend to contract differently. And only then will we see a different result.”

Evans wasn’t the only one raked over the coals. So was William Corbin Jr., practice group leader at the law firm of Chapman and Cutler, pension disclosure counsel on the O’Hare bond deals.

Under questioning, Corbin said the firm has 337 employees and 45 African-American attorneys. But only one black lawyer is working on the O’Hare bond deal, and that attorney is not a partner.

“It’s not for lack of effort,” Corbin said, noting that the firm “aggressively recruits” minorities.

He added, “We hear your message.”

Burnett branded the now-familiar pattern “unconscious racism.”

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