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Alderman ups the ante in demand for minority contracting on O’Hare expansion

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council's Hispanic Caucus, and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) demand minority contracting on $8.5 billion O'Hare Airport expansion project. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Minorities and women will either get their fair share of the jobs and contracts generated by an $8.5 billion O’Hare Airport expansion or the City Council will “take away the funding source,” an influential alderman warned Tuesday.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, made the threat after convincing the Aviation Committee to create an oversight commission to ride herd over the massive project and hold Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s feet to the fire.

“As we see barriers or roadblocks or things that are not working, we introduce legislation or we take away the funding source [and] go as extreme as that,” Villegas told his colleagues.

But the City Council’s Finance Committee has already authorized $4 billion in bonds retired by the increased landing fees and terminal rents baked into new airline lease agreements. And the full City Council is expected to sign off on the entire project on Wednesday.

Doesn’t that mean the Black and Hispanic caucuses — representing 60 percent of the city population, combined — are giving away their ultimate political leverage to a seat on the O’Hare gravy train?

“Absolutely not. … Every year, they have to come back to us for appropriating authority. … The overall budget has to be approved by the City Council,” Villegas said.

“Holding funding from certain agencies — that sends the message to the administration that something’s not working. And I think they’ll be more than willing to say, ‘How can we get this thing rectified?'”

Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee left) and Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans address the Aviation Committee on Tuesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Villegas noted the political pressure imposed by the mayoral election less than a year away. With a crowded field of challengers, Emanuel will be under enormous pressure to deliver jobs and contracts to blacks, Hispanics and women whose votes he needs.

“This is an election season,” Villegas said. “This is the perfect season to see how this is gonna play out.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) noted that this is “probably the first time” the Black and Hispanic caucuses have merged their political muscle to “hold people accountable.”

“If it ever came down to that — if you look at the number of votes that exist between the African-American Caucus and the Latino Caucus — we have enough votes together to make any kind of impact that we want,” Dowell said of the caucuses’ combined 29 votes.

For years, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has been under fire for shortchanging black and Hispanic contractors on airport projects.

On her way out of Tuesday’s meeting, Evans was careful to acknowledge the Council’s control over the purse strings.

“They’re the legislative authority. We respect their role in the process. But, we don’t think anything like that will be necessary,” the commissioner said.

Evans said she has never presided over “a single contract at the airport that didn’t meet the goals” for minority participation.

On the $8.5 billion O’Hare expansion, the largest construction project in Chicago history, City Hall has relatively modest minority and women set-aside goals of: 25 and 5 percent, respectively, for design; 26 percent and 6 percent for construction and 16.9 percent and 4.5 percent for commodities.

“Techniques we’ve used in the past can be improved upon. We look forward to getting input from the [oversight] committee on how to do even better,” Evans said.

“We’re very confident that we have processes in place today where we identify early issues and we’re able to work with the contractors to make sure that we always meet to the goals. We have in the past. We will in the future.”

The oversight commission will allow black, Hispanic and female aldermen to work alongside representatives from the city departments of Law, Aviation and Procurement Services.

Quarterly meetings are planned to “maximize participation by diverse firms” and review the estimated dollar value of upcoming contracting opportunities to ensure that “project packages have been divided sufficiently to maximize participation by small and mid-sized” contractors.

Evans said, however, that it might make sense to meet more frequently during the first year “as we kick this off and ramp it up.”