Former Ald. Ray Suarez lands spot on Port Authority board

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Former Ald. Ray Suarez waits to testify before the City Council’s Transportation Committee about his $20,000-a-year appointment to the Illinois International Port Authority Board. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already taken care of former Ald. John Pope (10th) with a $116,856-a-year deputy commissioner’s job in the Department of Water Management that had been vacant for more than two years.

On Tuesday, former Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) got a soft landing: a $20,000-a-year seat on the nine-member board overseeing the Illinois International Port District.

The City Council’s Transportation Committee signed off on the mayoral appointment, even though Suarez openly acknowledged that he knows almost nothing about the nation’s largest inland general cargo port, one of Chicago’s greatest untapped assets.

During the confirmation hearing, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) described the port located in her Far Southeast Side ward as “very neglected” with “almost no marketing” to assist dependent businesses.

“Businesses that I’ve spoken to — and I’ve hit almost every single one — are actually willing to pay more for infrastructure because everything that’s happening there is left to just crumble around them. No one is putting any kind of effort into marketing the port or into increasing peoples’ businesses,” Garza said.

“It’s been very neglected …. It is not in very good shape. So, I would like to ask you, `What are your short-term and long-term goals for the port?’”

Suarez was like a deer in the headlights.

“To learn as much as I can regarding what are the proposals that are being planned for the port and to make sure that your ward is properly served and the businesses and the community [are] improved. And to make sure that everyone is very comfortable and very proud to have a facility of this size,” Suarez said.

Garza pressed Suarez to describe the “initiatives” he would “bring to the table” to wake up a board she described as pretty much asleep at the switch.

“I believe we have to market our facilities …. But from the little I know about the port authority, Chicago’s port is 36th throughout the nation. That’s pretty high considering our 50 states and their different ports,” Suarez said.

When Garza tried for a third time, Suarez punted.

“Before anything I bring, I want to see what your proposal is. You’re the alderman of the ward. I want to make sure I work with you and make sure we bring as much of the concerns that you have about the port so we can correct whatever problems you see so that it properly serves your ward,” he said.

Ald. Millie Santiago (31st), who defeated Suarez by 79 votes, gingerly asked Suarez to describe his qualifications.

“I bring my experience and my expertise in city government …. And my concerns are the same concerns that … you have: To make sure we have a facility that is run efficiently, that makes money, that creates jobs, that brings and attracts new businesses,” he said.

“I’ll continue to work with all members of the City Council to learn their concerns … so we can improve and make it much better than what I’m hearing today.”

Santiago called the mayoral appointment political payback to Suarez and his political patron, Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios.

“He may have some experience, but the timing is really bad. It’s a way for the mayor to appreciate what he has done throughout the years. I don’t think it’s the right thing, but I just don’t want to pick a fight against the mayor or against him,” she said.

Two years ago, Emanuel’s grand plan to privatize the Illinois Port Authority District to create hundreds of jobs and capitalize on its vast untapped potential hit a political barge.

The Broe Group, the Colorado company that had pledged to invest $500 million in port facilities over the next decade, “amicably suspended” negotiations on a master lease after being unable to reach agreement with the Port District.

Emanuel responded by saying he was prepared to sink the deal — just as he pulled the plug on privatizing Midway Airport — after the exclusive bidder tried to pull a fast one.

“Sometimes the best answer on a negotiation is `no.’ And if they were trying to change the fundamental terms as it relates to economic investment and job creation that they committed to in the first place, `no’ was going to be the answer and `no’ is sometimes the right answer,” the mayor said then.

“They wanted a 60-day exclusive based on the goals they were going to hit. You can’t change the goals and expect us to say yes. My view is no is the right answer. This is a different day in the city of Chicago. We learn when there’s a mistake like the parking meters. We’re not going to repeat it here.”

The privatization plan would have created up to 1,000 permanent jobs and 3,000 construction jobs.

The Port District, which has roughly $30 million in outstanding debt, would have received $1 million in annual revenue, along with 10 percent of new revenue that came into the port.

Over the years, the Port District has been accused of operating in the shadows without standards and focusing on patronage and recreation at the expense of commerce.

That has changed under attorney Michael Forde, who was rewarded with a $25,000-a-year appointment to chair the nine-member board after helping Emanuel beat back a residency challenge that nearly derailed his candidacy for mayor.

Forde started by returning the port authority to its core mission by choosing Kemper Sports to operate the Harborside International Golf Center, from which the Port District derives more than half its annual revenue.

The board also hired the Bank of Montreal to do a “strategic and capital needs study” of the Port of Chicago. And at Forde’s request, the General Assembly directed the state’s auditor general to conduct a management and financial audit of the Port District that was predictably and sharply critical of operations under the previous regime.

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