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Navy Pier is an arm of government, no matter what it claims — so let’s see every contract

An agency accepting nearly $2.5 million in federal pandemic relief dollars should be held to the highest standards of public transparency.

Navy Pier
Sun-Times file photo

Now that the nonprofit that runs Navy Pier is getting a federal stimulus loan of nearly $2.5 million, it’s really way past time that it opened its books to the public completely.

Navy Pier Inc., which leases the 104-year-old pier from the public, is a government body that masquerades as a nonprofit organization. As such, it has been allowed to hide its workings from public scrutiny while benefiting from public support.

Navy Pier Inc. pays just $1 a year to the state and city to lease the pier.

And just this week, Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak and Robert Herguth revealed that the organization, whose president is paid more than $540,000 a year, has received a nearly $2.5 million coronavirus stimulus loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Like all nonprofits, Navy Pier Inc. must disclose much of its finances by filing 990 forms, but it does not have to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests or disclose the terms of contracts.

The governance of Navy Pier was reshaped as a nonprofit in 2011. The argument made then, which independent watchdog groups and editorial pages have been questioning ever since, was that the pier was in the entertainment and tourism business — hardly a core function of government — and fundraising efforts would be more successful if it were a nonprofit instead of an arm of government.

The Better Government Association first sued Navy Pier Inc. in 2014 to force the release of basic records. The litigation continues, with some successes and setbacks, with an appeal on file with the Illinois Appellate Court.

Whatever the folks who run the pier claim it to be, political influence has been docking there for years. Its board of directors includes former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s daughter. Its chief operating officer, Brian Murphy, was Daley’s deputy chief of staff. And its vice president of operations, Michael Degnan, is the son of longtime Daley family political adviser Timothy Degnan.

As revealed by multiple media investigations, both current and past operators of Navy Pier also have doled out lucrative contracts for restaurants, shops and other attractions controlled by politically connected people and businesses.

Given that record and history of political favoritism — and because work is underway for a new marina and Hilton hotel at the pier — it only stands to reason that the public should be allowed to look at every contract that’s let.

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