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Friday, August 14, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Alderman Flores and the Olympic Bid

A couple weeks back, Alderman Manny Flores (1st Ward) did a very bold thing in Chicago politics. He took on the mayor. In June of 2007, the mayor was able to extract from the city council a commitment of $500 million as a cushion for the Olympic bid. This was supposed to be a cushion because the mayor insisted that the games would pay for themselves and could be financed entirely with private funds. Then, in May of this year, the Mayor lead a delegation of Olympic bid supporters to Copenhagen. After meeting with the IOC, the Mayor proclaimed that in order to secure the bid he would need to sign a contract that would make the city, and by extension the tax payers, responsible for any and all costs that they Olympics would incur above and beyond what would be agreed upon before hand that the IOC would contribute. The problem of course is that signing on to such a commitment would mean that Daley couldn't guarantee that the $500 million already allocated would be enough. Daley, from Copenhagen, pronounced that he would go ahead and still sign on to the contract. That's where Alderman Flores entered. He introduced legislation that would do several things but the most important was a commitment that $500 million would be all that the city's tax payers would need to spend.

Then, Alderman Flores published this letter in the Chicago Tribune. The letter laid out five princpiples that he wanted to see followed in pursuing and implementing the games. Alderman Flores was then and continues to be a supporter of bringing the games to Chicago. He was in his letter, however, standing up "for the tax payer".

I have introduced legislation to cap the city's financial commitment for the Games at the $500 million that was authorized by the City Council in 2007. It has been said that if my legislation passes, we will not be able to sign the host city financial guarantee contract required by the International Olympic Committee -- effectively killing our chances at being named the host city.

I don't want to that to happen, but the 2016 committee and City Hall have a responsibility to protect Chicago taxpayers. The five points I outlined would be a significant step forward in providing the protections we need to support a city guarantee.

At least one person close to the process in bringing the games here told me they were skeptical of Flores' motives. I, myself, wasn't sure.

What is Flores doing? That remains to be seen. Over the next several weeks and months, Flores will either make it his political mission to bring this bill to a vote, or he will fade into the background and media attention will disappear. If he does the first, then Flores is courageously trying protect the taxpayers from giving the mayor and the IOC a blank check in putting on the games. If he does the latter, then Flores merely acting like most opportunistic politicians.

In fact, so to was Ben Javorsky of the Chicago Reader.

After I read the piece I called Flores to ask if he was backpedaling. "It's not that I'm retreating," he said, but repeated a point he made in the editorial: "I don't think there's any way we can get the games with the cap and I don't want the legislation to kill the games. I think the games could be a real economic opportunity for the city."

Flores says neither the mayor nor his aides bullied or sweet-talked him—say, by promising to back him for Congress some day. In fact, he says they've never even talked to him about his proposal; he changed his mind on his own.

It's clear that Flores originally underestimated the repercussions of what he put forward. Had the council adopted it, it would have torpedoed Chicago's chances. The International Olympic Committee had made it clear that it would award the games to one of Chicago's competitors—Rio, Tokyo, or Madrid—if Daley tried to amend the host city contract by capping expenditures. Any alderman who voted for this measure would have immediately been vilified as the jerk who killed our city's Olympic dreams (though some of us would wear that bull's-eye with pride). In retrospect, Flores says, his proposal would've received no more than a couple votes—and he's not even sure his would've been one of them.

Earlier today, I spoke with Alderman Flores. He told me that he has not given up his intention to move forward with the bill. He continues to intend on introducing the legislation for debate later in the month and at another city council meeting on September 9th. What Flores told me was that the content of the bill could still change. He's looking at a few things before finalizing the bill. First, the Olympic committee is looking to buy insurance to protect the city against overruns. (in other words insurance that would pay for any construction that would go over budget) The Alderman didn't want to commit to a number but he was hoping the insurance would be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. Second, the Chicago Civic Federation will finalize their report analyzing the financial projections of the Olympic committee. If the CCF finds that the numbers are trustworthy, the Alderman would feel better about the finances. Third, he'd like to see an oversight committee that would be charged with making sure the finances are spent efficiently and without corruption. Now, Javorsky scoffed at this idea as well meaning but ultimately impossible to make "independent."

They include the creation of an "independent oversight committee . . . of respected civic, business, and law enforcement officials who have no financial ties to City Hall or the 2016 committee"—as if that were possible in a city where every public oversight committee I can think of, from the Community Development Commission to the Police Board, is controlled by the mayor, and even private businesses trip over each other to get access to him.

I posed this concern to Flores and he cited the same CCF as an example of an independent group in the city that is free of Daley's influence. So, while Flores acknowledged that its difficult to create an independent group of this sort in this city's climate, he believes that it can be done. Flores also wants everyone on the Olympic bid to sign a no conflicts commitment, full disclosure of bids and contracts (by making them all available on line), and full disclosure of funding and expenses of all Olympic commitments. Javorsky similarly scoffed at these notions.

Flores also wants a full listing of "Olympic contractors and subcontractors." Sounds good to me. But if 2016 does this the way the city has—and its executive director is former Daley chief of staff Lori Healey—that list won't be complete or easy to find. The city supposedly posts all its contracts and disclosure statements online, but many contractors are exempt—such as the bond lawyers and investment bankers who oversaw the parking meter agreement.

Again, Flores acknowledged that our city is a difficult environment for transparency in these areas as well. He pointed out that the alternative is no disclosure at all. Flores made this emphatic statement. If these commitments aren't made by the city and the mayor, Flores will make every effort to impose the $500 million limit and subsequently kill our chance of hosting the Olympics.

Flores pointed to his history of standing up for the tax payers including his bill for public asset lease disclosures. (a point that Javorsky acknowledged but minimized) It's imprtant to note that his bill is in the Finance Committee chaired by powerful Alderman Ed Burke, an ally of the Mayor's. As such, he would face an uphill climb in passing this bill. It remains to be seen if Flores follows through on his commitment to make protecting tax payer Dollars his first priority. As I told Flores, he is now on the record in his commitment and the next month to month and a half will speak for itself. Over the next month and a half, the city will see if Alderman Flores really is a crusading steward of tax payer money. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and we'll all be watching to see if he follows through.


Tom Tresser said...

If anyone who reads this account believes that the Alderman will actually demand accountability and get it, I've got some swamp land in Florida I'd like to sell you.

People - the only way NOT to get soaked by the games is to DEFEAT the bid.

Go to

Anonymous said...

Oh, Lord. I'm generally against the Olympics and would love more than anything to see Daley and his cronies ousted too. But if anyone actually takes No Games Chicago seriously, I've got some swamp land in Florida I'd like to sell you too.

No Games and others who spew this mindless rhetoric give a bad rep to rational people who oppose the Olympics but actually want to reform the city.

Chicagoans have such an inferiority complex about their city and politics. This kind of astounding negativity is just self-fulfilling prophesy. We know we're not happy with Daley and the current political environment, but then instead of supporting the reformers, we trash every good politician who comes along, apparently because they're not Jesus.

Manny has my full support in bringing some accountability to the city, and I actually believe he can make change in our political environment. Imagine that -- optimism about Chicago politics! It's long overdue.

mike volpe said...

Only Alderman Flores knows if he is serious about taking on Daley. That said, No Games have the research down. Call them cynical but I don't think it's fair to say their rhetoric is mindless. Everything they say is backed up.

Anonymous said...

Mike -- I'd agree No Games has some good research, but it's the cynical rhetoric that I would label mindless and that I think hurts their legitimacy.

mike volpe said...

With all due respect, given the last hundred years of corruption in Chicago why is cynicism not appropriate? Are you saying that someone is mindless because they view Chicago politicians cynically? Are you saying that this view is NOT warranted? What of that is mindless? If anyone deserved cynicism it is Chicago politicians.