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Andy Shaw: Navy Pier should quit hiding how it spends tax money

Navy Pier's new Centennial Wheel opened for business over the Memorial Day weekend. But good luck trying to see how the Pier spends taxpayers' money. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

We kicked off our long-awaited summer season over Memorial Day weekend.

Finally!

And Navy Pier, Illinois’ most popular tourist attraction, celebrated its centennial anniversary. It opened as “Municipal Pier” in 1916, a year marked by other significant events, including:

OPINION

* Albert Einstein’s publication of a “General Theory of Relatively,” which rocked the scientific world.

* The Easter Rebellion in Ireland, which put the Emerald Isle on the rocky road to partial independence.

* The election of the first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin from Montana.

* The appointment of the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis.

* The birth of Boeing, the world’s largest aircraft company, in Seattle.

As for Navy Pier — one of our civic gems — its weekend celebration featured inaugural rides on the new Centennial Ferris Wheel.

All good, right? So far, yes, but here’s a “spoiler alert” — this column is about to lose its celebratory tone and go all watchdog on you, starting with an iconic quote from the aforementioned Justice Brandeis:

“Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

That’s been a mantra of transparency advocates for more than a century, and it means access to public information — shining a light on government, as the BGA puts it — is a key to holding public officials accountable.

Unfortunately, the sunlight that illuminates the Pier stops at the door of its management office.

A little background: For years Navy Pier was part of a two-headed government entity known as McPier, shorthand for the authority that managed Navy Pier and McCormick Place.

Navy Pier was a notorious haven for patronage workers, a cash cow for connected contractors, and the subject of numerous investigations.

That may be one reason McPier decided, in 2011, to off-load Navy Pier, facilitating its conversion to a stand-alone non-profit— Navy Pier Inc. or NPI — with a $5 million loan and a dollar-a- year lease to manage and expand the visitor venues.

NPI hid behind its new designation to refuse our requests for information — salaries, benefits, perks and leases — claiming it’s no longer a government agency so it’s exempt from the state’s open records law, the Freedom of Information Act.

As a result, we don’t know if contracts and leases are bid competitively, or bypassed in favor of sweetheart deals; if minority businesses get a fair shake; if employee compensation is reasonable or excessive; if people are hired on merit or clout.

NPI won’t tell us, so a while back we filed a lawsuit to obtain the information we’re entitled to.

Our rationale was simple: Navy Pier sits on public land, receives McPier and City of Chicago tax dollars, and claims it’s a “local public entity” immune from negligence lawsuits.

“Government” when it wants to be, “private” when it doesn’t.

Our lawsuit says “defendants claim a public body can evade FOIA simply by creating a non-profit to perform the government’s work.

“That notion has no legal support and would create disastrous precedent in a state that desperately needs transparency.”

But NPI won’t budge and its lawyers are still fighting us in court.

So, as we head into summer, let’s enjoy the Pier and treasure its myriad contributions to Chicago.

But in the spirit of Brandeis, the centennial celebration, and NPI’s claim that it’s a new day, not business as usual — open the books and comply with our FOIA requests.

Their offices and documents should bask in the same sunlight that brightens our pristine sliver of public land and its millions of annual visitors.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga