License to approve | Bleader

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

License to approve

Posted By on 01.09.08 at 08:28 PM

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The City Council was busy this week: aldermen began discussing an ordinance [PDF] that would ban baggies under two inches square because they’re used in drug dealing; decided to defer, at least for a few weeks, another proposed ordinance that would restrict pigeon feeding; and introduced a resolution calling for former Cubs (and briefly Sox) player Ron Santo to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Somewhere in there aldermen also found time to sign off on the mayor’s appointments for police superintendent, chief procurement officer, and director of administrative hearings; and to approve more than $21 million to settle several police torture and misconduct cases, including four from the Burge era. Lots of aldermen had lots to say about all of these things, but that didn’t translate into much dissension on the record, since all these items received a grand total of one nay vote—from the Third Ward’s Pat Dowell, who gave a thumbs-down to the confirmation of new police chief Jody Weis because she was underwhelmed by his performance during a Q & A with aldermen on Monday. (Several others, including 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran, a former cop, had vowed to oppose Weis until receiving a visit from Daley’s council lobbyist, John Dunn, shortly before the vote.)

In fact, council chambers are often full of vigorous discussion and speechifying. It's just rare that any of it changes policy. Arguably the week's best example of this happened in Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection.

Tops on the committee’s agenda was a Daley administration initiative creating a licensing process for food and drink concessionaires along the Chicago River downtown. While aldermen on the committee were excited about further developing the “Riverwalk” as an entertainment and tourist area, they were confused and even skeptical about certain parts of the city’s plan, including an unusual arrangement that would use the Chicago Park District to award the concession spots—it’s not Park District property, but according to city officials the city’s own procurement office doesn’t have experience in selecting concessionaires.

But it was when the discussion turned to the estimated costs of building out the waterfront area, and the city's plan to use millions in TIF funds to do it, that several aldermen sat up straight in their seats.

“We’ve traditionally gone after federal funding for most of our transportation projects, and unfortunately we haven’t been very successful with that [for the Riverwalk],” said Michelle Woods, an official from the Chicago Department of Transportation. “We were successful in identifying some local TIF funds for the first under-bridge [construction] project.”

“And what does it cost?” asked 29th Ward alderman Ike Carothers, the committee’s vice chairman.

"About three and a half million.”

“For the total project?” Carothers asked.

“No,” said Woods. “For the total Riverwalk project we’re looking at between $50 to $60 million.”

“And how much have you spent do date?”

“We’ve probably spent about $350,000 for the design.”

"For the design,” Carothers said. “So this is going to cost $50 to $60 million. Have you identified the funding?”

“No.”

“How do you know it’s going to happen if there’s no funding identified?”

“Well, we’re working on identifying more funding, and—”

“But you know, we all have projects that are supposed to be funded from CDOT in our wards, and a lot of our projects are not moving forward because CDOT tells us they don’t have funding—in my own ward I have viaduct projects that aren’t going forward,” Carothers snapped. “This seems to be a very ambitious project, $50 to $60 million dollars. We just passed a budget here when we were talking about the city being short of money, and here, $50 million, $60 million coming from we don’t know where, from the sky. What about the projects in our wards?”

Committee chairman Gene Schulter jumped in, telling Carothers in a patient, soothing voice that the committee was there to discuss the licensing process and not the funding. At first Carothers didn’t seem satisfied—the licenses are the “gateway” to the rest of the project, he argued—and he went on to ask pointed questions about minority involvement and handicapped access to the Riverwalk sites. “How in 2008 can we open something new that is not accessible?” he demanded.

The city and Park District officials in the room promised that the Riverwalk would be eventually be fully accessible, even if it isn’t now and won’t be this coming summer. And they told him three of the ten current vendors on the riverfront are minority owned.

For the next few minutes other aldermen asked questions about how the food would be prepared, and representatives from Friends of the Chicago River and a couple of the restaurants setting up booths endorsed the project.

Finally, after about an hour of testimony, Carothers spoke up again. “Mr. Chairman, are we voting on this today?”

Schulter said yes.

“Then I move to pass,” Carothers said.

And so it passed—unanimously.

Later, Carothers said he’d decided Schulter was right—the license committee wasn’t the place to resolve his concerns about the funding and other issues. “We’ll have to look at this a little more closely,” he said. “I’ll definitely be following this.”

The full City Council passed the measure Wednesday without discussion.

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