PI Original Matthew Blake Tuesday April 24th, 2012, 6:20pm

Emanuel's Infrastructure Trust Passes Council Vote Despite Continued Concerns (VIDEO)

The Chicago City Council passed 41-7 today Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial “Infrastructure Trust” public-private partnership, arguably Emanuel’s most significant proposal in his one year as mayor.

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The Chicago City Council passed 41-7 today Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial “Infrastructure Trust” public-private partnership, arguably Emanuel’s most significant proposal in his one year as mayor.

The lopsided vote comes a week after the proposal narrowly cleared the Finance Committee, 11-7, and Ald. Edward Burke (14th) deferred a planned April 18 council vote. A few aldermen who initially doubted or outright voted against the Trust in committee, in the case of Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), voted "yes" today.

There are lingering transparency concerns – amendments by a group of aldermen to address these worries twice failed. And, despite six weeks of public debate, it is hard to say what projects the Trust will finance, and what the costs and benefits will be to Chicago taxpayers.

The Trust will be a non-profit entity financed by five private investment groups and operated by a five-member board. The board, which will be appointed by the mayor and include one member of City Council, will identify infrastructure projects beneficial to both Chicago’s needs and the private investors.

The Trust will start with private investors funding an energy retrofit of city buildings. Emanuel has declined to specify additional projects.

The Mayor addressed City Council prior to the vote. He argued that Trust supporters and opponents both agree that Chicago has a “crumbling infrastructure” and also that “we shouldn’t raise taxes.”

Given these dual infrastructure and revenue concerns, the Mayor argued that privately financed infrastructure is necessary, especially since the federal and state government can’t be relied upon for funding.

Then, instead of arguing for the specific virtues of the Trust that he conceived, the mayor pivoted to a broad discussion of local economic development and infrastructure.

Emanuel said that, “30,000 Chicagoans are going back to work in the next three years” thanks to an array of infrastructure projects – airports, roads, schools, parks, and water system repairs.

However, it was not clear how many of these jobs would come from Trust projects, excepting the up to 2,000 jobs promised by the energy retrofit.

The Mayor has separately rolled out a “Building New Chicago” plan, a listing of infrastructure projects that have a funding mechanism that is not the Trust.

Emanuel also addressed Chicago’s 2009 leasing of its parking meters to Parking Meters LLC. The mayor made an extended joke that everyone in Chicago – well-off and not well-off, white or black or brown, North Side or South Side – can agree on one thing: They didn’t like the parking meter privatization.

However, Emanuel argued that at “every level” the Trust is different. Specifically, the city leased the meters out to a private company and the Trust will not involve the leasing of assets. “We own the public assets and will continue to own them,” Emanuel vowed.

Aldermen in support of the measure largely echoed the mayor, even adding their own variations to a frequent Emanuel topic – how to make Chicago more globally prominent and competitive.

Ald. Will Burns (4th) said that the Trust would finance, “The kind of projects that make Chicago important and relevant.” Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) argued that poor infrastructure holds Chicago back from becoming a world class city.

A few aldermen in support of the Trust veered from the city script to name specific projects. For example, Ald. Joe Moore (49th) hoped the Trust would fund rehabilitation of the Chicago Transit Authority Red Line. Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) saw the Trust as a vehicle to provide affordable rental housing at the Chicago Housing Authority’s Lathrop Homes.

Trust opponents like Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), focused their gripes on good governance issues like public transparency and City Council oversight. As a non-profit, the Trust is not legally bound to Freedom of Information Act requests, though the ordinance states the city would comply with FOIA requests.

Waguespack and Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) twice proposed amendments to make the Trust a subsidiary of the city, and therefore accountable to FOIA requests, and also city Inspector General oversight. The Council tabled both attempts by votes of 40-8 and 39-9.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), one of the seven “no” votes on the Trust, was unique in speaking about taxes and user fees possibly borne on public taxpayers for projects selected by private investors. Addressing other Trust opponents, an exasperated Hairston said, “I wonder if we got the same information” as alderman who praised the Trust.

The Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of community and labor groups, shared the concerns of Waguespack, Fioretti, and Hairston, holding a press conference prior to the council meeting.

Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, argued that Emanuel was walking back the transparency promises he made in his campaign for mayor. Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey – CTU is a member of the collaborative – wondered if the Trust is preferable to the traditional practice of issuing bonds for infrastructure projects.

“There is a well understood and regulated bond market,” Sharkey said. “I don’t know what this [the Trust] is.”

Here is video of Patel, Sharkey, and other Trust opponents outside of City Council:

The Grassroots Collaborative press conference was pushed back, due to a press conference of Trust supporters that included Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, along with elements of the labor movement, like the building trades that support the Trust as a jobs creator. “It’s time to vote on this, and it’s time to move forward,” O’Connor said.

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