Mayor's Infrastructure Trust Faces Aldermanic Opposition
Aldermanic opposition is growing against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create a billion dollar partnership with private investors to improve the city’s aging infrastructure.
Nine aldermen now say they will vote against the current ordinance to create an infrastructure trust, citing a need to further protect taxpayers and allow City Council to have a larger role supervising the trust. They also say the legislation lacks specificity in the trust’s powers, ethics requirements and transparency.
“I can’t create support [among my constituents] of a board that has very broad powers without certainly understanding what their powers are and ensuring there are proper checks and balances,” said Ald. Michele Smith (43rd.) “There is no reason to rush this through at the next City Council meeting.”
The ordinance is scheduled for a Council vote on April 18.
The mayor’s plan for the trust includes a five-member board of directors appointed by the mayor with experience in infrastructure financing, capital markets and municipal financing. It also calls for “similar” and “comparable” financial disclosure and transparency standards as other government agencies.
Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander says the mayor’s office has been meeting with aldermen to discuss potential revisions.
“The mayor’s always willing to talk to people,” Alexander said. “But he’s not going to deviate from his goal to find new funding sources for the city.”
Alexander adds that the trust will be “completely” subject to FOIA.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) says aldermen should be allowed on the trust’s board and more specific transparency rules should be included. Along with Smith, he says the Council needs more time to formalize their concerns.
“I don't see why we should rush this ordinance through and vote on it in a few weeks when the long term effect is decades,” he said.
Waguespack says he is drafting a revised version of the ordinance and wants more Council hearings to study the trust.
In addition to Council control and transparency, some aldermen want assurances that trust-funded projects will support minority workers.
“If we’re going to do all this infrastructure work, there needs to be a mechanism where African-American and Latinos can become members of the union, so they can then work and be a part of the construction trade,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th.) “I’d like to know how we’re going to go about doing that before I sign off.”
The aldermen who say they will vote against the ordinance are still supportive of the trust’s goal: partnering with private investors to rehab Chicago infrastructure as long as there is a return on their investment.
The only proposed project for the $1.7 billion trust is a $225 million retrofit of public buildings to make them more energy-efficient. The utilities savings would be passed on to the trust as dividends.
“I think it’s a phenomenal idea, but we need to tweak it a little bit more,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th.) ”The Council should have more oversight over such a huge fund with potential revenue ramifications.”
Cardenas says he would vote against the trust unless the mayor revised the ordinance.
“At the end of the day, our responsibility is to ask questions,” he said.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Ameya Pawar (47th) expressed similar concerns in an editorial in the Chicago Tribune on Monday. They wrote the mayor had “a compelling vision for the Chicago Infrastructure Trust—but let’s make sure we do this right and fully protect the taxpayers.”
Dowell and Pawar’s editorial called for an alderman to be on the trust’s supervising board and to require City Council to have final say over any of the trust’s projects. They also wanted more specific rules preventing conflicts of interest from board members and opening the trust’s records to Freedom of Information Act requests.
“I happen to think the mayor’s proposal is the correct vision,” Dowell said in an interview with Chicago Tonight. “We need to tinker with it to make it better…These are things any aldermen would be concerned about. I’m not surprised a number of people are thinking along the same lines.”
Pawar was unavailable for comment.
Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st), Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), Ald. Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st), and Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) also say they will vote against the ordinance.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) also questioned some of the details of the mayor’s plan in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, but did not say whether he would vote against the ordinance without changes. Fioretti was unavailable for comment.
Several aldermen say they are still considering the ordinance and haven’t committed a vote, but three say they will vote for it as currently written.
Ald. Rey Colon (35th) worked with a Boys and Girls Club to retrofit their building, and the energy savings paid for the improvements, he says.
“I've heard different concerns, ‘How do you get a project in there? How do you get it governed?’ I know there are still some unanswered questions about it,” Colon said. “But it is worth exploring, especially with the great needs we have in the city. It is going to take a great idea to address some of the failing infrastructure.”
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) calls the mayor’s plan “genius” and says he will support the current version, even if he prefers to have an alderman on the trust’s supervising board. Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) also says he would vote for the ordinance.
Alison Burdo and Shanika Gunaratna contributed to this report.