2009 flubs and fiascoes of Mayor Daley
ANALYSIS | Privatizing parking meters, failing to win Olympic bid leave the mayor reeling
December 27, 2009
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter
Mayor Daley has endured countless highs and lows in his 20-year reign, but the seesaw seemed to stop in 2009: It was one gigantic downer.
The city's parking meter privatization fiasco drove Daley's approval rating to an all-time low -- and most of the $1.15 billion windfall was drained to fill a massive budget shortfall.
Daley's Olympic dream went up in first-round flames. Chicago learned it's losing talk-show icon Oprah Winfrey, two major trade shows at McCormick Place and the $2.5 billion deal that would have privatized Midway Airport.
One of Daley's staunchest City Council supporters was indicted after wearing a wire for more than a year. A former top mayoral aide was convicted. Another committed suicide.
And the mayor's wife of 37 years suffered two more cancer setbacks.
Between punches, Daley did manage to use a $25 million city subsidy to lure United Airlines to Willis Tower and a $16 million settlement with Bensenville to remove one of the last remaining obstacles to his massive O'Hare Airport expansion.
He also celebrated 20 years in office. But even that milestone -- on April 4 -- passed with little notice. "I was surprised. I thought somebody would ask me a question on that," a visibly hurt Daley told reporters five days after the anniversary.
The year began on a sour note for the mayor, with the city forfeiting $153 million in federal funds to create bus-rapid-transit service that would have sped the commute for thousands. Federal bureaucrats refused to grant a 13-day extension to approve one of the strings attached: congestion-reduction fees for downtown parking and deliveries.
Then came a rare Daley retreat. In a city where the Blizzard of '79 buried then-Mayor Michael Bilandic, a City Council rebellion forced Daley to reverse a snow-removal policy that saw City Hall use less salt, plow side streets during normal working hours to avoid costly overtime and skip side streets altogether after minor snowstorms.
Chicago turned into a national laughingstock when a 14-year-old police impersonator scammed his way into going out onto the streets with a real officer for five hours, even driving a squad car. Police Supt. Jody Weis called the incident "unforgivable" and "horribly embarrassing." The mayor was livid.
The Daley shuffle continued with the appointment of CTA President Ron Huberman to replace Arne Duncan to head the city's schools. Before departing to become President Obama's secretary of education, Duncan had recommended his chief education officer, Barbara Eason-Watkins, as his replacement. Daley ignored the advice and picked Huberman, who had endeared himself to the mayor as the City Hall chief of staff who cleaned house after the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals.
The City Hall version of musical chairs also shifted Aviation Commissioner Richard Rodriguez to the CTA. Huberman is an education neophyte. Rodriguez has no background in mass transit. Both moves exposed how thin the mayor's bench of trusted advisers had become.
The mayor later also replaced his chief financial officer, chief procurement officer, budget director, inter-governmental affairs director and inspector general in 2009, along with the CTA Board chairman and commissioners of streets and sanitation, aviation, health, human resources, general services, fleet management and animal care and control.
In March, years of globe-trotting -- in part to promote Chicago's ultimately failed 2016 Olympic bid -- came back to haunt Daley. The mayor and his wife were accused of taking multiple trips aboard a $31million jet owned by a nonprofit under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and Congress. Daley insisted he had no tax obligation from the trips.
It wasn't long before the mayor was back in his defensive crouch. Former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez, longtime head of the Hispanic Democratic Organization Southeast, was convicted of rigging city hiring and promotions to reward soldiers in the HDO army who campaigned for Daley and his handpicked candidates.
Following an all-too-familiar script, the mayor read a statement apologizing for the rampant hiring fraud on his watch. But he refused to answer questions about politically damaging trial testimony -- which might be replayed now that a federal judge last week ordered a new trial for Sanchez.
Fallout from the Sanchez verdict was nothing compared with the backlash that followed the 75-year deal that privatized Chicago's 36,000 parking meters. Steep rate increases that forced drivers to stuff their pockets with quarters would have been bad enough. But broken pay-and-display boxes and overstuffed and improperly calibrated meters made it even worse.
No other issue during the Daley years -- not even the mayor's infamous midnight destruction of Meigs Field in 2003 -- has resonated more with Chicagoans than the parking-meter mess. For political opponents, it's the gift that keeps on giving, with pay-and-display boxes freezing up during a recent cold snap and another rate increase scheduled to take effect as 2010 begins Friday.
Drivers vented their anger by vandalizing meters and boycotting on-street parking, punishing already-struggling local merchants.
The issue saw aldermen run for cover from a deal they'd approved in record time. Daley defended it but acknowledged that City Hall botched a too-quick transition.
Inspector General David Hoffman piled on by concluding that taxpayers would have been $974 million better off if the Council had raised rates by the same amount and kept the meters for the next 75 years.
Chicago was deprived of an even bigger windfall when Daley's $2.5billion plan to privatize Midway Airport collapsed for lack of financing. That left taxpayers with a $126 million down payment but no apparent way to shore up underfunded city pensions that threaten to become a financial albatross for future generations of property owners.
The Midway deal fizzled just as a burgeoning financial crisis triggered a dire warning: Without another round of unpaid furlough days for city workers and other union concessions, Daley would lay off 1,600 employees. All but three city unions ultimately agreed to the mayor's demand, reducing the number of pink slips to 431.
With city revenues plummeting, the mayor also yanked off the table a five-year, 16.1 percent pay raise that police officers had deemed inadequate to begin with.
Thousands of police officers chanting, "Daley sucks," marched around City Hall in a protest timed to embarrass the mayor during the International Olympic Committee's final visit to Chicago.
Daley had more important things on his mind. His wife, Maggie, underwent a biopsy of a lesion on her spine, a sign that her 7Â½-year battle against metastatic breast cancer, which has defied the odds, had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It would be the first of two major setbacks for Chicago's 66-year-old first lady. By year's end, she was temporarily using a wheelchair while undergoing radiation treatments for a malignant tumor in her right leg.
Her health wasn't the only Daley family crisis. Federal subpoenas issued to city employee pension funds prompted the mayor's nephew Robert Vanecko to drop out of a risky real estate venture involving $68 million in pension funds.
It wasn't soon enough for the mayor, who insisted that he had tried to get his nephew out of the deal nearly two years earlier, only to be ignored.
The Daleys are a close-knit family, usually closing ranks at the first whiff of trouble. This was the first time the mayor had ever aired the family's dirty laundry in public.
"I love my nephew. It's difficult for me to have my disappointment in him made public," the mayor said, offering an explanation that was difficult for many Chicagoans to swallow.
An even tougher sell was the mayor's surprise promise in June to IOC members meeting in Switzerland. After repeatedly insisting that he would never put a blank check behind Chicago's Olympic bid, Daley offered to sign a host-city contract that amounted to an open-ended guarantee from local taxpayers.
Blindsided by the mayor's promise and burned by the parking-meter deal, aldermen demanded another City Council vote.
To insulate taxpayers and keep public support from hemorrhaging, Daley asked Chicago 2016 committee Chairman Pat Ryan to line up more than $1 billion in private insurance. And he ordered Ryan to hold a series of public hearings in all 50 wards.
It worked. After extracting concessions, aldermen approved the blank check. That set the stage for what Daley hoped would be a "defining moment" in Chicago history akin to the Great Chicago Fire and the World's Columbian Exposition.
The mayor's spirits soared even higher when President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey agreed to join Daley in Copenhagen for the final sales pitch to the IOC.
On Oct. 2, thousands of volunteers jammed Daley Center Plaza for what they thought would be a celebration. Instead, Chicago suffered a knockout so stunning it took the city's collective breath away. The 2016 Games would be held in Rio de Janeiro. Chicago was knocked out in the first round of voting. After exhausting his political capital on the Olympics at the expense of higher priorities, the mayor had virtually nothing to show for it -- only 18 first-round votes.
Daley returned home to face a $520 million city budget gap, a $300 million CTA shortfall and the continuing fallout from the horrific videotaped beating death of a Fenger High School student.
Some wondered whether the Olympic debacle would mark the beginning of the end for Daley. They questioned his will to dive back into Chicago's toughest problems without the bonanza of federal funding, jobs and contracts that an Olympics would have provided.
The mayor responded by showcasing a political resiliency that has long been underestimated. He threw more money and police officers at the vexing problem of youth violence, turned up the heat to end the stalemate over allowing more Wal-Mart stores and ribbed reporters for dancing on his grave.
"You have my obituary already set. You've been writing that for years. ... I don't know why you already put me in the grave," he said.
Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th) dug his own grave by allegedly accepting $40,000 in home improvements, meals and sports tickets from a West Side developer in exchange for zoning changes that netted the developer millions. But it was Carothers' decision to wear an electronic eavesdropping device that sent shock waves through City Hall. The alderman's wire has already led to charges against a Naperville businessman accused of trying to buy airport concessions.
The Carothers bombshell paled by comparison with what happened Nov. 16. The body of Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott, a longtime and invaluable Daley confidant, was found face-down in a foot of water with a gunshot wound to the head in a lonely downtown spot along the Chicago River.
The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. A shaken Daley accused her of grandstanding and jumping to conclusions. The police kept investigating. They ultimately reached the same conclusion.
Months before committing suicide, Scott had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating how students are chosen for admission to some of Chicago's elite public schools. Questions have also been raised about school expense-account spending and about his development deals, some conflicting with his role as co-chairman of Chicago 2016's Outreach Advisory Council.
Scott's death left a giant void in Daley's shrinking inner circle and at the Board of Education, where budget troubles threaten to increase class size and force teacher layoffs, pay cuts and reduced pension contributions next year. Those painful choices were avoided this year after the mayor signed off on a $43 million school property tax increase.
Daley managed to avoid tax and fee increases in the city budget only after nearly using up reserves from the parking-meter deal that were supposed to last for 75 years.
He expected to be hailed for his foresight in helping Chicago avoid the tax increases and police layoffs faced by other deficit-ridden cities. Instead, he drew accusations of mortgaging the city's future.
Winfrey -- for whom Daley closed North Michigan Avenue to make way for her 24th season premiere -- delivered a knockout punch as 2009 mercifully drew to a close. She announced that the 25th season would be the last for her Chicago-based show. She was pulling up stakes for sunny California to focus on her cable network.
It was a painful but fitting end to a year that Daley would undoubtedly just as soon forget.
(Response) I think Fran Spielman gave the knock out punch! WOW!!!