Rally cry | Bleader

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rally cry

Posted By on 04.20.09 at 09:45 PM

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As rally cries go, “Greater accountability and transparency in city finances!” doesn’t pack quite the punch of “Hell, no, we won’t go!”

But all of the sudden that’s become the call to arms for a group of activists, community leaders, and aldermen frustrated over Daley administration policies on a range of issues that include the tax increment financing program, the city’s ongoing budget crisis, eroding city service delivery, youth violence, hasty privatization deals, the mayor’s obsession with the Olympics, and the lack of oversight from the City Council.

“I’m so glad to see our aldermen here saying they’ll do their due diligence to help with this financial crisis,” Action Now executive director Denise Dixon said at a press conference / rally outside council chambers earlier today.

In other words, Chicago is in such a state that Dixon was genuinely fired up at the notion that members of the legislative branch would pledge to ask for a few more details about the budget and lease deals—maybe even before they vote to approve them.

And several of the aldermen standing behind her—presumably some of the ones she was referring to—haven’t stood up to the administration publicly over any of its privatization plans or service cuts.

“If I came home one day and found that my husband had sold all my furniture, all of my assets, and then my gas was cut off because he didn't pay the bill after he received the money, that would piss me off,” Dixon said.

Plenty of people out there are pissed off, but they don’t seem to be asking the so-called man of the house what on earth he’s thinking.

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, one of the few who has dared to wonder if three days is enough time to scrutinize a $1 billion deal, said that city budget officials won’t even provide the council with routine updates about its use of public funds. “Every couple of weeks we get press releases about a growing budget deficit and plans to sit down with the unions to discuss more layoffs,” she said. “We need more information”—such as why the shortfalls exist, what parts of the budget are affected by them, and what exactly is on the table to deal with them.

“In order to make intelligent decisions, we need transparency with city finances,” said Tom Balanoff, the president of the state council of the Service Employees International Union.

No one laughed when he said this; it didn’t even seem like an outrageous request to the aldermen assembled there or to the reporters who cover them. But it’s a far cry from the way business has been conducted by this administration, and the council hasn’t demanded anything different.

As aldermen “we haven’t been exercising our obligation to review these things,” Preckwinkle said in an interview after the rally. “We’re colluding with the administration on our own marginalization.”

Yet there’s still a chance for “repentance,” as one aldermen put it to me recently.

This morning Preckwinkle and several other aldermen called for new hearings on the parking meter lease deal. Tomorrow the council’s finance and economic development committees will take up the TIF sunshine ordinance that was put on hold a few weeks ago out of concerns that citizens might be overwhelmed by information.

And city officials have just announced that the Midway lease deal fell through because the lessor couldn’t come up with the cash. Officials say they’re open to trying again, and if they do, aldermen will have another chance to ask the questions they didn’t before.

But perhaps the most striking part of the event earlier today was that it was organized by Balanoff’s union, which helped elect several would-be reformers to the council in 2007 but spent much of the time since campaigning for Barack Obama. SEIU leaders tell me they’re back, and they’re planning to make financial transparency their next “big box” campaign.

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