How Chicago's Parking Meter Deal Matters in Springfield

07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Was the deal that privatized Chicago's parking meters for 75 years a good one?

David Hoffman, the city's inspector general, an independent watchdog on government, says probably not. He's not even straight-up saying no, just that the process was fundamentally flawed.

He issued a report Tuesday that says the city entered into a questionable deal in virtual secrecy and pressured the City Council into voting on it without adequate time for review. And the public? Forget about them -- what was best for people who park their cars on the city's streets wasn't even a part of the equation. The public interest, Hoffman said, wasn't even considered. And that's wrong.

That made Paul Volpe angry.

Volpe is Mayor Daley's chief of staff and former budget director -- the city's chief financial officer at the time the meter deal was struck.

He took a cab from City Hall up to Hoffman's offices at 740 N. Sedgwick and met with reporters almost immediately after the inspector general issued his report, saving the reporters a trip, or calls, to City Hall to get the mayor's reaction and, perhaps, preventing them from filing versions of their stories without the city's point of view included.

When you look at Volpe angry, it's eerie. It's almost as if you're looking at Daley angry. Volpe didn't get as red, but he did sputter a bit. He definitely had the boss' mannerisms down. Probably kills at the office holiday party after the boss goes home.

And the message Tuesday afternoon was the same as Daley's constant refrain with anyone who has the temerity to question him. To question him is to question his love for the city and his omniscient ability to know what is best for it: You just don't get it, he says. Trust me. I know what's best. I love this city more than anyone. It's my city.

Well, Mr. Mayor, it's not about who has the franchise on love. Chicago's a big place, and a lot of people love it just as much as you do. And they love it in different ways than you do. That doesn't make them wrong and you right. At least not always right.

And that, really, is what is most annoying about this whole thing: Volpe says -- "with all due respect" -- that Hoffman is an idiot. He didn't use the word, but the intimation was clear. He said at several points that the assertions in Hoffman's report were ridiculous.

Volpe also said that it was ridiculous to assume that the City Council passed a budget without adequate information. Yes, he actually said that. Talk about ridiculous!

Many aldermen have complained loudly for years that the city's budget process is a sham -- or at least that they have no real input or impact on the process, unless they kiss the mayor's ring or are so reliably in his corner that he doesn't have to make them bow in specific instances.

Mr. Volpe's reality is a fantasia. He can't really believe the words that came out of his mouth.

So let's back up for a moment and stipulate that everything the city claims is true: That without this meter deal we would have had to lay off 1,800 police officers or cut the Fire Department's budget by a third or cut this or cut that or drastically raise taxes on city residents.

Even if all of that is true, is there anything wrong with the findings in Hoffman's report that say that we should allow the public and the council to independently scrutinize the deals, to have a process that is open and robust, and to let various parties have a say in how it plays out?

Too messy, the mayor says. My way or the highway, the mayor says.

If the deal is such a good deal, as Volpe condescendingly insisted Tuesday, then it should hold up to every tire-kick anyone can aim at it. Right?

So then humor Hoffman and institute the changes to the process that he calls for. Shouldn't be a problem.

Why we should care about any of this is because it all traces back to a crazy little guy named Rod Blagojevich. How does the impeached former governor fit into a deal to privatize parking meters in Chicago? Because it all goes back to governmental operations and transparency and true checks and balances.

The Illinois Reform Commission, on which Hoffman sat, spent 100 days looking at things like how government lets contracts and how that process invites corruption and other nefarious skulduggery.

It's a mistake to think that the commission's recommendations apply only to Springfield. The reforms are needed at every level and the laws that would change under the commission recommendations would extend to how the city does business.

Hoffman himself said that the city privatization deal reminded him of the need for the reforms.

Nothing has changed. And everything needs to.