Mayor Rahm Emanuel is moving swiftly to build an arena and hotels in the South Loop, and Alderman Pat Dowell supports the plan.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is moving swiftly to build an arena and hotels in the South Loop, and Alderman Pat Dowell supports the plan. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media

For one bright moment at last week’s City Council meeting, Alderman Nick Sposato—a lowly independent—pulled a badass move straight out of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s playbook.

All right, maybe it wasn’t badass so much as wily. Sposato, alderman of the 36th Ward, deployed the same parliamentary move the mayor and his allies have used to bury countless reform proposals in the rules committee.

In this case, Alderman Sposato was messing with Mayor Emanuel’s pet project—that still-expanding real estate boondoggle involving DePaul, Marriott, and what’s certain to be tens of millions of your property tax dollars.

Of course, I’m sure you’re all totally cool with letting the mayor waste them, because you’re filthy rich.

In case you were busy counting the money from your hedge fund and missed it, this all started last year, when Mayor Emanuel announced his bright idea of spending $55 million of your property tax dollars to buy two plots of land near the corner of Cermak and Michigan.

On one plot he would build a 10,000-seat events center that would primarily be used by DePaul as a basketball arena. And on the other, just to the south, he would put up a 1,200-room Marriott hotel.

The project is a joint venture between the city and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which, as the name suggests, is a state-city body that runs McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

But in his zeal to make it happen immediately if not sooner, the mayor underestimated the determination of one of the property owners to hang on to his real estate—or at least force the city to pay more to buy it.

That would be James McHugh, a well-connected developer who owns the land where the mayor originally intended to stick the Marriott.

Moreover, McHugh had already received city approval to build a data center on the site. In September he sued the city, basically asking a judge to keep the mayor from snatching his property.

With that case looking to drag on for months, Mayor Emanuel decided to change his plans.

In other words, the mayor messed up, so you—the taxpaying pawns of Chicago—will end up paying the price.

Specifically, the mayor now wants to buy the property just east of the basketball arena and put the Marriott there. But he’s still fighting to buy McHugh’s land—he says he wants to put a small hotel there.

So instead of buying two chunks of land, he wants to use your money to buy three. If this keeps up, we can look forward to annexing Hammond.

Of course, the money to buy the land for the Marriott comes from that mayoral slush fund known as the tax increment financing program.

As even schoolchildren are starting to realize, the TIF program is a scam in which we pay property tax dollars for things we want (like schools) only to have the money diverted so the mayor can spend them on things we don’t necessarily want (like this South Loop project).

In other words, the mayor messed up, so you—the taxpaying pawns of Chicago—will end up paying the price.

To make the project happen, the mayor needs the City Council to sign off on an intergovernmental agreement in which the city gives McPier up to $55 million to buy the land for the Marriott. And he needs the rubber-stamping done in a hurry because he wants to get construction going by the end of this year.

Apparently we don’t have a second to spare for a discussion about whether we should be taking property tax dollars from our dead-broke schools to build this baby.

At the February 5 council meeting, the mayor asked that the McPier agreement be sent to the finance committee, chaired by Alderman Ed Burke, who can always be counted on to ram through mayoral initiatives without much pushback.

That’s when Sposato pounced, taking advantage of a parliamentary rule that allows any one alderman to divert a proposal to the council’s rules committee.

“I asked the clerk to send the [agreement] to the public safety committee,” says Sposato, “because if there’s a conflict in committee, it automatically gets sent to rules.”

Take that, Mayor E!

The rules committee is chaired by Alderman Michelle Harris, a mayoral ally who can be counted on to bury legislation the mayor opposes. Think of her as the complement to Ed Burke.

It was in the rules committee that the mayor has buried proposals on an elected school board, TIF reform, checks on privatization, and a moratorium on charter school conversions, which Sposato proposed last month.

By the way, I’m not bragging—OK, maybe a little—but I was the guy who suggested that the independents use the rules committee to do to Mayor Emanuel what he does to them. So this is officially the first time that any alderman has ever listened to me.

I’m king of the world!

Once the mayor’s proposal was in the rules committee, Alderman Harris would have to quickly call a hearing to get it out. That would give Sposato and his progressive allies an opportunity to point out how interesting it is that measures intended to reform the TIF program die in rules, while those that waste TIF money get liberated—ASAP!

Alas, a few moments after Sposato made his move, he was approached by Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell, a big supporter of the South Loop project.

“I guess Pat took it kind of personal,” Sposato says. “She said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ I said, ‘I’m not messing with you, Pat—the mayor introduced it.’ But she said ‘Yeah, but it’s my ward.'”

Actually, the project is in the Second Ward, now represented by Alderman Robert Fioretti—it won’t become part of the Third Ward until 2015, when new boundaries take effect. But why bother with technicalities?

“I said, ‘Pat, you know what the mayor did to my charter school resolution.’ And she said ‘That was the mayor—this is me.’ So I told the clerk to withdraw my proposal.”

Nooooo! He had the mayor in his sights and let him go.

“I know. Look—I did it for Pat. I like Pat.”

Let’s face it—nice guys like Sposato will always be at a disadvantage when swimming with sharks like the mayor.

Alderman Dowell’s account of what happened is much the same as Sposato’s.

“He was taking action on a ward that was not his,” says Dowell. “I asked him to withdraw it. If he needed to send a message to the administration there are better ways to do it.”

Such as?

“I have my own opinions on that.” And she isn’t about to share them.

So the intergovernmental agreement went to the finance committee, which will undoubtedly approve it sooner rather than later, while the mayor’s South Loop blob keeps growing fatter and more costly.