Shenanigans and Shillelaghs
by Peter Zelchenko September 18, 2009

shenanigan (n). Trickery or deceit. (< Irish sionnachuigim, "I play the fox.")

Ah, the Irish language. The Gaelic tongue has such beautiful, flowing sounds. A lot of them seem to start with "Shhhhhh."

The Sun-Times' Fran Spielman argued September 10 that the mayor's much-criticized handling of the Olympics is justified in the end, and that the City Council was not a rubber-stamp this week, despite that widespread perception. Spielman opines:

"If Daley's hide-the-ball approach persuades aldermen to act like the deliberative body they're supposed to be, it might just be worth the price of a summer filled with Olympic hand-wringing."

Good lord. Spielman states that the piddling concession package "undoubtedly was more than [Chicago 2016 Chairman Pat] Ryan (and, by extension, the mayor) wanted to give." Well, sure it was, since at first they didn't think they'd have to give anything. But it's actually next to nothing compared to what Mayor Daley has beaten out of the people of Chicago.

It is obvious that the council was pressured by the Chicago 2016 Committee -- perhaps better nicknamed the "Daley shillelagh" -- to get excited and not fight the Olympics at this point. They had to "re-authorize" (omigod) Mayor Daley's underhanded deceit of giving away the keys of the city without getting permission first. In July, he took a trip to Switzerland and essentially gave the International Olympic Committee his word that we taxpayers would guarantee the costs of the Olympics -- a sticking point on which he never actually checked with us beforehand.

These actions, of course, are only Daley's crowning achievements after several years of duplicity relating to the Olympics. The shenanigans began in around 2006 when Daley approached the city's oligarchs and asked for angel funding to seed an Olympic push. In the midst of an economic recession, Daley used this seed money to create a fundraising machine that to date has raised well over $100 million in real and in-kind dollars, mostly from people who stand to gain if the city does get the Olympics -- and, more importantly, who stand to be left out if they don't get on board right now. This money, finally, has been used to drive what is probably the largest concentrated public planning bandwagon in Chicago history.

Although it's intended that we believe everything has been done with total transparency and public rigor, much energy has been spent in cultivating that illusion while quietly and methodically engineering the opposite effect.

In 2007, anticipating the need for greater control over our parks, the mayor allowed his parks chief, Tim Mitchell, to begin curtailing the autonomy of our park advisory councils, elected bodies of civilians whose job it is to oversee and advise on parks management. These powers were hard-won in a series of civil-rights suits and consent decrees in the 1980s. Although these councils are supposed to be independent bodies, the Park District pulled them into their orbit and put a stranglehold on their activities. The upshot: now, if there is any dissent, the new rules effectively state the city can replace a council at will, and any money they raise is controlled by the Park District. Do you think it's a coincidence that this shenanigan was accomplished just last year?

The bid committee claims that, "From the outset, Chicago 2016 has benefited greatly from an ongoing dialogue with communities and organizations throughout the city." But this is simply a shenanigan. From the outset, it was a closed process. It was not until this year -- four years after the beginnings of this process -- that they began to hold "legacy forums" and to "expand outreach advisory councils," which started only with highly compensated mayoral cronies like Michael Scott, Terry Peterson, and Tariq Butt. In fact, I can find no record that these entities actually even existed before 2009. Only when the ball was well in play did they feel it was safe to gradually invite certain select community organizations, all carefully vetted and co-opted.

Ben Joravsky reported that, just this week, Chicago 2016 finally came clean about who donated the $72.8 million -- plus untold tens of millions in in-kind contributions -- to fuel their massive pressure campaign. On calling around, he learned that donors "feel all sorts of pressure to donate, some subtle, some not." It reads like a Who's Who of city patronage contractors and beneficiaries. They are afraid that "the mayor, much like Santa, is watching to see who's been naughty and nice."

But No Games Chicago organizer Tom Tresser says that the biggest shenanigan was the economics:

Every city official "knew we were going to have to go all in [promise the shirt off our broad public shoulders] from the beginning. The Olympic charter has always stated that host cities are totally liable and the IOC is liable for nothing. The Host City contract reiterates the fact the host has total responsibility to produce the games and build a village."

So, Mayor Daley's cudgel-wielders have known since around 2005, when they first started flipping through the brochure, that they'd need to do shenanigans, that we'd have to be taxed billions of dollars just like other cities. How is it that this point came up on the public radar only this Spring?

Furthermore, Tresser notes, the mayor's people have been claiming that no taxpayer money has been spent yet. But already almost $210 million have been allocated for acquisition, security, and demolition contracts for Michael Reese site, plus the tens of millions expected to remediate the toxic site, plus the $110 million TIF of taxes diverted for its development.

Tresser calls this "Enron accounting." You know what I call it: "shenanigans." With "shillelaghs."

The mayor claims there is nothing else on the radar that would bring economic development to Chicago, that it's this or nothing. Here's a boring one off the top of Tom Tresser's head: Give the $5 billion of our taxes to local banks and let them bootstrap small businesses citywide. That's a far better diversification of risk, satisfies more immediate needs, gets directly to the people who need it instead of the fat cats, and it's been demonstrated repeatedly worldwide, by the World Bank and other major lenders, that small local injections on a large scale help regional economies.

Daley's "hide-the-ball approach," as praised by Fran Spielman, led to the City Council's unanimous (and quite canned) vote last week to reach into our pockets and reward all of this. It was done without any debate -- only plaudits, only the hollow sound of aldermen slapping themselves and the mayor on the back for a job well done. The sole parenthetical comment came from Joe Moore, who should simply have voted No. It was as though he were apologizing for his vote when he sheepishly said, "The public is right to be cynical."

That's a colossal understatement. On September 3, the Tribune headline read, "Support for Olympics fades." Their poll concluded that less than half of Chicagoans favored the bid. Their major objection was, in fact, the very funding mechanism, the linchpin of which the City Council passed this week. If we were skeptical in the beginning, we were cynical earlier this year. By now, with this outrageous show by the City Council, we all should be furious.

How can a City Council be 100.0 percent supportive of something that most Chicagoans opposed one week before? How can there be no dissent? How can the Sun-Times conclude that a vote like this, because of the one or two negligible bones thrown to the aldermen, makes things right after all? Who's driving public opinion in this city, anyhow? Is it the aldermen and media pundits, or is it the people?

Can it be that the Civic Federation -- the conservative chamber of commerce that issued its favorable endorsement of the Olympics plan -- had the power to transform an entire city's opinion in under a month? No Games Chicago's Tom Tresser says there are "so many conflicts of interest in the inception, staffing and execution of this report as to make it virtually toothless." (Read No Games Chicago ripping apart the report's purported impartiality.)


"I say, wrong must not win by technicalities." --Athena to Chorus, in The Eumenides by Aeschylus

Does the end (the City Council picking up the pom-poms) justify the means (strong-arm tactics, purse-string pressure, obfuscation, duplicity)? How can aldermen and the media support such methods?

(Bleah. I'm now haunted by an image of Ed Burke and Dick Mell in short shorts and tight, color-coordinated halters.)

Seriously, though. I'm told we live in a democracy. In a democracy, you have to go back to the premise: what is good for the public is what the public has had the strongest possible hand in creating, from the beginning. If the public has been excluded at crucial moments, through any sleight of hand, then you cannot proceed with the plan; you'd have to start from scratch.

Scheming behind the scenes -- secretly collecting seed money from the oligarchy, then secretly leveraging that to squeeze millions from patronage contractors, all with a mind to mass-manipulate the public -- this is a larcenous act, not to be rewarded by anyone under any circumstances.

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