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If you view leadership as the ability to shove useless stuff down the throats of people who don’t want or need it, then you’d have to conclude that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is having one heck of a year.
The highlights started on May 22, when he got his appointees on the Board of Education to approve the closing of 50 schools. Then, a couple weeks later, he arm-twisted the City Council into revising the parking meter deal.
And don’t forget—we’re not halfway through 2013. Still on deck is his harebrained scheme to take $55 million from our financially strapped schools, parks, and county so it can be used to buy up land on the Near South Side for a hotel and DePaul basketball arena.
Yet I’ll say this for the mayor: he generally tells you what he’s going to do and then does it. Except for hiring more police officers, which he promised to do and then didn’t. Or holding the line on taxes, which he promised to do before raising them. Or reforming the tax increment financing program, which he said he did even as he kept handing out subsidies to wealthy companies.
Have you ever noticed that the promises he keeps are usually the ones you didn’t want him to make in the first place—and vice versa?
None of it happens by chance. After the school closings and parking meter ratification, it’s clear that there’s a method to the mayor’s madness, and a madness to the mayor’s methods. Put another way, he has a curious recipe for getting what he wants, and the truth is not necessarily an ingredient.
Mayor Emanuel starts with a bold assertion along the lines of: As your mayor I have determined what’s best for you.
Then he has his aides issue a bewildering stream of figures and assertions to support his proclamation. That forces everyone from activists to reporters to everyday citizens to spend the next few weeks of their lives sifting through a morass of convoluted claims, which sometimes turn out to be fact, sometimes fiction, and often a creative combination of both.
Either way, the outcome is pretty much ordained. Emanuel’s allies and appointees rarely deviate from his talking points—unsubstantiated or otherwise.
And the mayor closes the debate with his favorite argument of all: I know that change is hard and makes you emotional, but the status quo is not an option. And by the way: fuck you!
Then voila! Fifty schools are closed and the parking meter deal gets reaffirmed. In the name of changing the status quo, the power of the mayor remains unchecked.
In the case of the parking meter deal, nothing really changed for people on the ground. As you undoubtedly recall, four years ago Mayor Richard M. Daley sold the street parking system to Chicago Parking Meters, a consortium of gazillionaires who immediately jacked up the rates.
Even as Emanuel says the city and schools desperately need every nickel they can get, more than $100 million a year in meter money is flowing to the lucky CPM investors everywhere from Germany to Dubai.
In 2009 a lawyer named Clint Krislov filed suit hoping to have the deal overturned as unconstitutional.
Mayor Emanuel began his argument for reratifying the meter contract by asserting there’s no way he can undo it in court because of the judge’s ruling in Krislov’s case. In truth, as my colleague Mick Dumke first reported, the judge ruled something far different: that a legal challenge to the parking meter deal could only prevail if the city were behind it.
The case is still under appeal, and the city is still fighting it.
So the bottom line is that Mayor Emanuel made up a judicial ruling in order to justify reapproving the meter deal. As fabrications go that’s impressively ballsy, even for Chicago.
There’s more. The mayor claimed his new meter deal will save the city $1 billion in “true-up” payments required to compensate the private company for meter removals. But that claim is bogus, because the meter company can still demand future payments.
Then he said he’s going to swap free parking on Sundays in some neighborhoods in return for allowing the parking meter company to add an extra hour the rest of the week. Emanuel says that will probably decrease CPM’s overall take, though no one else believes the company would sign on to a money loser.
What we do know is that by reratifying the meter deal, the City Council made it more difficult for Krislov—or anyone else—to overturn it. Which is what most residents, including the mayor, say they want.
So why make the new deal? Well, since none of the mayor’s explanations make any sense, allow me to offer my interpretation. This is Emanuel’s way of sending a message to any and all investors that Chicago remains very much for sale.
Mayor Emanuel won approval for his school-closing plan in much the same way.
He started with the bold assertion that dozens of schools were “underutilized” and in need of closing in order to save up to $1 billion over the next ten years.
Alas, over the course of months of scrutiny by activists, parents, teachers, and reporters—most notably Linda Lutton and Becky Vevea of WBEZ—many of the mayor’s chief assertions have proven to be either questionable or false. At best, any savings will be a long way off, since initially it will cost more money to prepare schools for consolidation.
Emanuel also relied on a flawed formula to determine which schools were overcrowded, in that it counted art and special-ed classrooms as empty. Plus, children from shuttered schools aren’t going to be automatically sent to higher-achieving schools—in some cases they’re going to lower-achieving ones.
And to make it work, Emanuel is stitching together a bizarre safety plan involving police, firefighters, and community groups, because many children are forced to walk through rival gang territory to get to their new schools.
This was the policy that the mayor’s school board endorsed without substantive debate—other than to chastise protesting parents for not understanding the underlying issues.
By comparison, the City Council was as independent as the backbenchers in the British House of Commons. Eleven aldermen voted against the new parking meter deal.
On the other hand, 39 aldermen voted for it. And many felt compelled to celebrate it, such as 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr.
“Mayor Emanuel has chutzpah!” Burnett declared. “You made the parking meter company give us back some money! Mazel tov!”
Putting aside the fact that technically he’s incorrect—the parking meter company most definitely did not give us any money back—there’s two ways of interpreting Alderman Burnett’s comment.
He’s either the world’s biggest apple polisher since Eddie Haskell. Or he’s a master satirist, pointing out the absurdity of the moment by congratulating the mayor for making a bad deal even worse.
I’ll choose interpretation number two. Against all evidence, I try to remain eternally optimistic.