Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Alderman Ameya Pawar: Chicago Needs to Learn How to Legislate

The 47th ward alderman doesn’t want to be the anti-mayor, but knows the city’s rubber-stamp council could do better.

Ameya Pawar

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

I met Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) for breakfast Tuesday at the Julius Meinl’s in his ward. I had last talked to him a bit more than a year ago after he had completed one year in office. 

I have since heard gripes from some to his left politically that the alderman has not been as independent (i.e. more reflexively anti-Mayor Emanuel) as they expected him to be. He is, after all, a guy whose campaign office was a bowling alley and who won election in 2011 without the support of anyone who mattered politically. “I got here totally on my own,” he told me Tuesday. “No one did anything for me. I make decisions based on what I think to be right.” 

Rahm has done some good things, Pawar adds. “I’m not just trying to create this political narrative where I’m always the anti-mayor.” That said, Pawar notes that he has cast three no (anti-Rahm) votes thus far (against the Concept charter school, electronic billboards, and speed cameras), and he voted Wednesday against the Mayor’s tweaks to the despised ripoff of a parking meter deal with Chicago Parking Meters LLC. (CPM paid the city $1.15 billion upfront in exchange for leasing and collecting all monies from the city’s 36,000 parking meters for 75 years; Rich Daley spent almost all of it to plug budget holes.) He also notes that he was opposed to school closings, to the idea of “privatized public education,” to  “all this neoliberal stuff that the private sector is better than the public.”

Our conversation Tuesday focused on Pawar’s effort—joined by City Council colleagues Michele Smith (43rd) and Pat Dowell (3rd)—to sponsor an ordinance to create an Office of Independent Budget Analysis charged with analyzing all financial bills that come before the City Council and designed  to prevent a humiliating fiscal disaster like the meter deal from ever happening again.

Pawar is just 33, but it’s likely that he and the rest of his colleagues will be dead before the meter lease expires in 71  years.

Here’s a condensed transcript of our conversation:

CF: Do other cities have this  kind of independent budget office?

AP: New York City, San Diego, Pittsburgh. But that small number is misleading because in most cities the Council works with the executive  branch on  the budget…. We have no ability to shape the annual budget.

CF: What will this independent budget office cost and how many people would staff it?

AP: The request that we put forward is between $250,000 to $350,000  to fund this office annually; we envision it having three people: a director and two junior-level staffers. It would occupy space in City Hall and have an independent board, similar to what they have in New York. 

CF: On the parking meter tweaks, the Mayor brought in Chicago-based Navigant Consulting to examine his proposed changes. So what’s wrong with that? 

AP: We had a hearing the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend and apparently Navigant Consulting was hired over that weekend…. We weren’t told that there was an independent analysis being done; the City Council wasn’t engaged, and we had no role in selecting the firm or in making sure that our concerns… that we provided to the mayor’s office were being addressed. Navigant studied only two parts of the bill. They didn’t, for example, study “pay by cell,”  and every time I bring data privacy and monetization of data up they say, “oh, Alderman, it’s not a big deal; don’t worry about it”….

CPM is going to develop a cellphone app. They can be their own 3rd party vendor to create the app. It costs my constituents 35 cents to use it if they’re parking for less than two hours. The data you enter into the app reflects your consumer behavior. If you’re parking on Oak Street, you have your credit card info entered into the app; Prada and some of these designers are going to want to know who’s parking in the area…. No discussion about what it means in terms of securing the data if there’s a breach. What if the data is hacked? What’s this data really worth?

CF: When you raised the issue of the City Council establishing its own independent budget office with the Mayor and his people what was their reaction?

AP: “We don’t have the money,” but what we’re asking for is identical to what they spent for Navigant, $250,000, for just this one issue. They said, “you find the money and we’ll be happy to work with you”… but in Chicago there is no real ability for the City Council to say, “let’s  take it from here and put it over here"….. We can ask questions… but in terms of setting priorities, how we police, how we pick up garbage, we have no ability to do that.

CF: So the money you’re asking for on an annual basis is identical to what Navigant received for consulting on this one issue?

AP: Yes. The people in our proposed office would analyze the annual budget [last year 500-pages long], the casino, infrastructure projects, privatizing Midway. We are a coequal branch of government; we’re the legislative  branch, and the most I can do is just vote up or down without having any role in shaping public policies. When you talk about this rubber stamp… we can’t move away from that without having the tools to do the job…. The power right now is just concentrated on the 5th floor…. I said that if I had more of a role in drafting the budget then I would know where to look for money…. We rely on the mayor’s office to give us information.

CF: The civics books tell us that Chicago has a weak mayor, strong council government.

AP: It certainly doesn’t function that way. Look, this isn’t about personalities. It isn’t about me and it certainly isn’t about Mayor Emanuel because there’s going to be another alderman of the 47th ward and there’s going to be another mayor. We want checks and balances. So for example if I introduce an ordinance that says, “This program is going to cost the city X amount of dollars,” call me on that and say “Ameya you’re wrong"…. We’re the third largest city in the country and we’ve got really complex deals coming up  when it comes to Midway or the casino bill, and there should be an independent analysis of them…. We don’t want what we got this time: You put $250,000 in a fund and you can find a consulting company to validate what you want.

CF: Are you saying that Navigant knew the answer before they did the research?

AP: I don’t know. We weren’t involved in selecting the company. I don’t know how they were selected…. Nobody told us that Navigant had been retained…. We’re spending $250,000 as a city and no one came to us and said, “Hey by the way we’re doing this for your benefit so you can get the benefit of analysis"…. The Mayor’s office controls the purse strings…. The mayor’s office can find money at a moment’s notice to hire consultants…. But when we ask for $250,000 for an independent budget office, we don’t have the money. Incredibly frustrating.

CF: Once hearings are held on the creation of this budget office do you expect the mayor will operate behind the scenes to oppose it? 

AP: He says he’s for reform and wants to change the way the city government works.

CF: So how do you make the Council stronger and more equipped, with or without your independent budget bureau, to reject bad advice?

AP: A lot of staff time is spent on constituent stuff, and I’m getting to the point where I think a decreased City Council makes more sense. We have 50 wards and so the power is spread out and what you do is… constituent services…. When you’re dealing with hundreds of phone calls everyday there’s no way to look at the global stuff that’s happening.

CF: Rahm has suggested and sometimes seems to be threatening to reduce Council from 50 to 25. Would you be on board with that?

AP: If the city is going to own and operate a casino and if the City Council is going to have oversight into that… we need to figure out how to structure the Council in a way that makes sense. Do we want a legislative body that’s looking at things more globally? Or do we want a legislative body that’s looking at things at the hyper local level? Do we want an aldermen to be more of a  full-time legislator rather than half-time constituent services, half-time legislator?

CF: How would you go about decreasing the Council’s size?

AP: Every time you have an alderman retire, you can reduce the number of aldermen. We can also think about term limits…. Maybe we could put in an ordinance to say—only way to get it passed—that anyone elected after 2015 could only serve two terms.

CF: So you’d be grandfathered out. But you promised to serve only two terms. So you’ll run for reelection in 2015 and then quit?

AP: Yes.

CF: When you leave city government what do you want to do?

AP: My dream job is the national park service…. I think [this job is] incredibly rewarding and an honor but I think two terms is the right amount.

CF: One of the sweeteners to the deal is supposed to be free Sunday parking. Are you going to opt out?

AP: My chambers [of commerce] are uniformly against it. Which is why so many of us are so angry. [The Mayor] cut a political deal for himself, for the headline. “Rahm has given you free Sundays,” but they never took a moment to see how that plays out in the neighborhoods. And I have the third most parking meter spots in the city…. It can’t be a ward specific solution…. I share the boundary of Clark Street [with two other aldermen] So if they decide on one side of the street that they want to keep [free Sundays], but I don’t want to keep them, then on one side of the street you have parking and the other you don’t. We need to come up with a regional solution. 

CF: If you had been an alderman in 2008 would you have voted no on the meter deal?

AP: I would have voted no. I wouldn’t be in office today had it not been for the parking meter deal. It was what drove me to run; you wouldn’t have 17 new aldermen…. This parking meter deal is a payday loan…. It’s emblematic of what happens when you sell things off to patch budget holes…. [Investment bankers from] William Blair and [attorneys from] Katten Muchin [where Rich Daley since retiring from the mayor’s job is now of counsel]—came to the Council and offered [aldermen] a shiny nickel and [they] took the shiny nickel instead of the fistful of dollars…. William Blair advised that we should sell this worthless asset. “Here’s a billion dollars in return. This is the best you’re ever going to get,” so you had the [Daley] administration and William Blair essentially holding a gun to the city’s head, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling, vote.”

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