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Andy Shaw: How to prevent another parking meter privatization scam

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It’s been a long time coming.

Those iconic song lyrics came to mind a couple weeks ago, when Mayor Emanuel finally introduced a much-anticipated ordinance designed to protect city residents and taxpayers from another privatization fiasco like the parking meter abomination.

The plan is a modified version of a 2012 proposal that languished in a City Council committee until this year, when the administration finally got serious about the issue.

OPINION

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To refresh your memory, the Daley administration sold the city’s parking meters to a private company in 2008 for more than a billion dollars in a bang-bang deal that violated multiple good government tenets: Aldermen had just two days to consider the transaction, so there wasn’t time for public hearings or due diligence; the profits were quickly spent on one-time budget fixes; and the cash-starved city was excluded from any future parking revenue beyond fines for meter violations.

It was bad public policy and poor fiscal management.

City Hall wrung a few concessions out of the meter owners during Emanuel’s first term — the mayor called it “making a little lemonade out of a big lemon” — but it still leaves a sour taste in our mouths.

In fact, the only sweet spot, from our watchdog perch, is the fact that the deal sparked an ongoing conversation about the risks and rewards of privatization, and our BGA Policy Unit has been actively engaged in that discussion — beating the privatization reform drum at every turn, and most recently, working with the mayor’s team on a transparent process that ensures public input and City Council review in advance of all major privatization deals.

That’s essential because privatization is an increasingly popular option for governments saddled with budget, pension and infrastructure woes.

The BGA’s not endorsing privatization as a way to raise revenue, cut costs or operate more efficiently — decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis — but we’ve consistently argued for a codified assessment process to determine whether a prospective privatization is good or bad for taxpayers.

The new ordinance does that by:

+ Establishing a review period of at least 90 days between the time the administration first proposes a privatization and the Council’s final vote.

+ Requiring a public hearing, a Council committee hearing and a cost-benefit analysis on every proposal.

+  Calling on the administration to enlist an independent advisor to evaluate the fiscal and social impact of a proposal on city residents and taxpayers.

+ Mandating performance reviews to hold contractors accountable.

+ Ordering the City to set aside and invest a percentage of the proceeds of mega-deals to ensure future generations share the benefits.

No ordinance is perfect — this one’s not a panacea and it took far too long to reach critical mass — but it’s a valuable and necessary step for the City of Chicago.

Ald. Rod Sawyer, the co-sponsor, earns a shout out for his dogged determination to get it done.

And the Emanuel administration deserves recognition for consulting the BGA in the crafting of the ordinance at the same time we were shining a bright light on city government and holding its officials accountable.

Now it’s up to the entire City Council to do its job by giving the proposal careful but prompt consideration.

Get it on.

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

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

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