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BGA Urging Open Process For Any Deal To Privatize Midway

Midway International Airport (CBS File Photo)

Midway International Airport (CBS File Photo)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – The Better Government Association has been putting pressure on the Chicago City Council as city officials weigh possible privatization of Midway International Airport, in an effort to make sure it won’t turn out like the disastrous parking meter lease deal.

“That has been the biggest single fiasco in Chicago contracting history,” BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw told WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger.

Shaw said, for any future privatization efforts in Chicago, the BGA wants to prevent the kind of backroom dealing that led to the maligned 75-year lease of the city’s parking meters in 2008.

That deal led to annual increases in parking meter rates, and was plagued by equipment malfunctions when operations were turned over to the private contractor, Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley ramrodded the parking meter deal through the City Council in December 2008, with only an hour of debate, only two days after Daley unveiled the plan.

Shaw said the BGA is pressuring aldermen for what he calls a “fair, open, and transparent process” if and when the city goes forward with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to privatize Midway.

“We’re not suggesting that the mayor is doing this the wrong way. His intentions seem to be good, he has established a blue ribbon panel to look into the Midway deal, but that’s a one-off process,” he said. “What we need is a permanent ordinance that codifies a process that protects the taxpayers.”

The BGA has been collecting signatures for a petition drive, demanding public hearings for any deal to privatize Midway, or any other city assets.

“We need it in black and white. We need an ordinance that spells out a process for privatization; that includes public hearings, City Council debate, due diligence – all aimed at guaranteeing we don’t lock ourselves into anything like the parking meter deal ever again,” Shaw said.

In December, Emanuel’s office renewed efforts to privatize Midway, but stressed no final decisions have been made about leasing the airport to a private contractor.

Daley had put forth an ambitious $2.5 billion proposal to lease the airport for 99 years, but that deal evaporated amid the 2009 financial crisis, and Chicago aldermen have been wary of privatization efforts since the parking meter fiasco.

The mayor’s office said any deal it proposes would have safeguards, the lease wouldn’t be longer than 40 years, and the city would be guaranteed an ongoing revenue stream from the lease to pay for capital expenses, rather than one lump sum payment.

It would also include a “Travelers’ Bill of Rights” assuring minimum standards all travelers at the airport would be able to expect, no matter what changes occur under any privatization.

The deal would also preserve labor protections already in place to make sure employees are treated fairly, and given an opportunity to work for the new airport manager – with similar pay and benefits – or transfer to another position with the city.

The city would use any initial proceeds from the deal to pay off airport debt, while retaining ownership of the airport, and maintaining revenue-sharing throughout the lease.