Tuesday, August 28, 2012

To be or not to be an infrastructure trust rubber stamp

Posted By on 08.28.12 at 05:53 PM

David Hoffman: full of existential questions about the potential independence of mayoral appointees
  • David Hoffman: full of existential questions about the potential independence of mayoral appointees
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and top city officials are working "diligently" on big plans to upgrade the city's infrastructure by cutting deals with private firms.

But not even the people he's picked to sign off on the plans know exactly what they are yet, and one of them had an interesting idea Tuesday: maybe, at certain points, when "appropriate," they should ask a few questions first.

The suggestion came from former city inspector general David Hoffman, one of the five Emanuel appointees who make up the board of the city's new infrastructure trust fund. During the board's second-ever meeting, Hoffman made it clear that just because he's on the board doesn't mean he knows how it's going to work or what it will be allowed to do.

"It could be that we set up the trust so that whatever the city comes to us with, we accept as the project and then we're in charge of sort of figuring out the details," said Hoffman. "Or we could set ourselves up so that we independently have to make a call . . . I'm hoping and thinking the latter should be our approach but I don't think that's been decided."

And who will make the decision? There's the rub.

The first half hour of the board meeting proceeded according to plan. Board members adopted new bylaws, which include giving the city inspector general the power to snoop into its business—an important good-government measure. They approved the launch of a new website. And they got a PowerPoint presentation from the head of the city's ethics board.

Among the lessons: "No cash gifts."

Then they got down to business. The city's chief financial officer, Lois Scott, briefed the board on plans to retrofit an array of public buildings to save energy costs. Emanuel has already declared that this will be the first project financed through the trust fund.

Scott—who, like Emanuel's other top financial advisers, has a background in privatization deals—said officials from city agencies were holding meetings on "an almost day-to-day basis." She said they were teaming up with already-chosen private companies to determine exactly which buildings should be retrofitted and how much money could be saved.

"The city and sister agencies are working very diligently," said Scott.

There's just one thing—a little technicality. The trust fund board hasn't yet approved the retrofit plan, or agreed it should be up first. And when he created the trust, Emanuel gave its board that authority.

As Hoffman made this point, the other four board members—former Boeing CFO James Bell, former schools CFO Diana Ferguson, Alderman John Pope, and Chicago Federation of Labor president Jorge Ramirez—sat expressionless.

"It's important that at some point we should have some sort of a hearing where we not only hear from Lois and the city about why this would be a good idea, but make sure there's an opportunity for other groups, in the public and other experts, to say if they disagree," Hoffman said.

Hoffman, of course, was the guy who issued the scathing 2009 report that highlighted just how much taxpayers got hosed in Chicago's parking meter selloff. To review: with minimum oversight or analysis, the city potentially left billions of dollars on the table.

It also enriched a handful of insiders and gave up some of its rights to set traffic policy.

But at the time most aldermen felt they had to consummate the deal because proceeds were already expected to help balance the budget.

Hoffman didn't mention the meter deal Tuesday, but he raised the specter of it anyway. He said he'd heard that some city officials were already counting retrofit savings in budget planning and "presentations for bond investors, as if it was a fact."

"Obviously it's not a fact," Hoffman said. "It hasn't happened yet."

"I don't think that's prudent for any city agency to do so because something might fall apart or we might disagree," he added. "You don't want to see government get too locked into the savings before the deal because then there's pressure to do the deal because you need those savings."

Scott didn't deny that the city was already counting on the money from a retrofit deal. When Hoffman was done, she told the board, "I couldn't agree more."

But she disputed some of his other points, starting with the need for a hearing called solely to solicit public input on the retrofit plan. "People are free to come forward at each and every meeting of the trust to provide that feedback that you're looking for."

She also essentially told Hoffman not to get such big ideas—that while the board should be independent, its primary job was reviewing the mayor's plans. "It's also incumbent on us as government officials to work on this behind the scenes and present things for consideration," Scott said. When city officials have something for the trust to look over, "we will come before the trust and ask it for consideration."

In other words: when we want your opinion we'll give it to you.

Incidentally, as Curtis Black at Newstips writes, a new report warns that a retrofit deal for the city's water-pumping facilities—which has been on the table—could give so much control to investors as to amount to privatizing the water system.

As always, it all depends on the details.

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