Mayor pumps brakes on potential privatization

By Patrick Smith

After days of speculation, Chicago’s chief financial officer told the Chicago City Council on Oct. 28 that the city was not considering leasing Chicago’s water system. But despite the announcement, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and 12 other members of the council are continuing to push forward an ordinance that would prevent the city from leasing public assets without increased oversight and public input.

According to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), Chicago CFO Gene Saffold told the City Council on the first day of the council’s budget hearings that there were “no plans” to lease the system. However, aldermen are still concerned about future privatization of the water system and other city assets.

Waguespack recently proposed an ordinance to the council that would require more time for deliberation on privatization deals and would limit any future leases to 30 years.

Before Saffold took the water department off of the table, the city had refused to rule out leasing any of Chicago’s assets.

“Absolutely no comment,” said the Department of Water Management’s Public Information Officer Tom LaPorte on Oct. 27. According to LaPorte, no one in City Hall would comment on the matter. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office and the Office of Budget and Management did not

respond to interview requests.

On Oct. 26, Waguespack said he had heard

rumors that Daley was exploring a lease of the city’s water and sewer system to a private company. Days before, on Oct. 21, the mayor told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he had recently met with consultants and discussed possible future privatization deals. The mayor told the Tribune that the possibilities were tempting and that “nothing is off the table,” in terms of privatization. He did not deny that he was considering leasing the city’s water system.

“I have heard about it,” Waguespack said of a potential privatization. He also said he

was working on a package to make a case against privatizing the water system.

After the possibility of privatization was first reported, it received considerable media attention and Waguespack raised his objections publicly.

The attention prompted the City Council to ask Saffold about any plans at a hearing regarding the mayor’s proposed 2010 budget.

“Gene Saffold, who is the chief financial officer, said that there were no plans to do that,” Preckwinkle said of privatization. “He was asked directly about the water and he … said that wasn’t under consideration. What else could be under consideration? I don’t know.”

Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) said she was sure Saffold was “just saying that right now” the mayor’s office was not looking into leasing the water system, and that it had not ruled out the possibility of leasing the water system in the future.

“I am very concerned about what’s happening here,” the alderman said of privatization.

Waguespack and Jon Keesecker, the senior organizer for Food and Water Watch, warned against the city revisiting the possibility of leasing the water system.

“You’re almost guaranteed to see higher rates,” Keesecker said.

Food and Water Watch is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that advocates public ownership of water utilities.

Preckwinkle is one of 13 aldermen who have voiced support for the Asset Lease Taxpayer Protection Ordinance, Waguespack’s proposal that would limit the mayor’s power to privatize Chicago’s assets. The ordinance is a response to the parking meter lease deal that passed the City Council last year.

Preckwinkle said Mayor Daley did not give the council enough time to consider the proposal.

“We rushed into something that turned out to not be a very good deal for the citizens of Chicago, and therefore we need to be more cautious about these assets,” Preckwinkle said.

Waguespack said he hopes that the ordinance will force the kind of caution necessary to protect the city from harmful privatization deals.

“The Asset Lease [Taxpayer] Protection Ordinance is set up to try to slow down, if not stop some of these really bad deals that they’ve done,” Waguespack said. “It is set up to get public control over the decisions in terms of asset leases and if someone does push something through, we want to get full value.”