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Olympics Thu Oct 01 2009

One Thing to Remember About the Olympics

You'll get plenty of coverage on it tomorrow.

No matter what the IOC decides--and even if the Olympics do end up being a boon to the city--I hope we all keep one thing in mind: the process was not right. Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans who deserved to have a voice in the process were simply not included.

Ultimately, none of us--the Bid Committee, bid opponents like myself, and those in them middle--know what will happen if Chicago wins the games. Who knows? Maybe there will be a big boost for the economy without rampant gentrification and displacement, budget deficits, a security state, etc. Maybe the Bid Committee's projects were exactly right on and Chicago will see an enormous economic boost. The reality is that it is so hard to know what the impact of the Olympics are on a city, that even after we hosted the games, we wouldn't really know if they were worth the effort.

But like so many other things, the process was broken. The Mayor's administration put together a Bid Committee, who leveraged the strength of his office to raise enormous sums of money. They put the bid together, then tried to sell it to the public.

What should have happened is that a true citizen's committee should have gone to all fifty wards--better, all seventy seven community areas--not in a month in a half but over the course of many months, and built and designed a bid based on public input. There was plenty of time to do all of this. And it should have been done independently of the city administration. The close involvement of the Mayor's office in the process of putting the bid together creates the impression of quid pro quos for those aiding the Bid effort, even where none may exist.

Whatever your opinion about the Olympics, there's no doubt that the games were not sought in a way that included the people. An elite group made the decision, and then tried to sell it to the public. Potential critics were warned off rather than included early.

Those of us worried about the opportunities for fraud, waste, and abuse are often accused of not "trusting" or "believing in" the people of Chicago. But it is the bid committee--with its lack of transparency, its enormous budget and use of outside consultants, its ties to city contractors--that showed no faith in the people of the city. They didn't build this effort from the ground up, but from the top down.

Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were opposed to this bid and deserved to have a voice in the process. It's their city, too. They deserved to be heard and considered when pursuing this project. If the drive for the bid had truly been something built from the ground up, those loudest voices would have been heard early, and eventually just let it go. It was exactly because there was absolutely no democracy in the Bid Committee's model that made people so furious and gave them the energy to doggedly pursue their opposition.

Reasonable people can disagree about this issue. There are strongly held beliefs on both sides. People I know and respect deeply honestly feel that the Olympics will be great for the city--I don't think they're corrupt, or stupid, or evil. I do think they're probably going to be proven wrong.

It's time for the era of governance by public relations to end. The Bid Committee could have saved themselves a lot of heartache and embarrassment if they had just pursued this bid in a transparent way, involving the public honestly and early on, and avoided relying on the coercive power of the Mayor's office to raise funds and silence opposition.

I hope if we win the bid--which looks increasingly likely--that the people of the city come together to make it a truly democratic games. That families are not displaced, and that shoving working class and poor people into increasingly ghettoized neighborhoods is not confused for raising the quality of life for Chicagoans. I hope that we are able to keep our parks from being taken out of use for the people that need them most.

I like the idea of Chicagoans coming together to throw a party. Let's do that. Imagine if the corporate community came together to raise $76m to fund a city-wide effort to build a truly homegrown event that poured money into our creative and amateur athletic communities? Chicago has an amazing blend of hard working people--rich and poor--and some of the most creative people in the country. Bring those people together, yes. That is something we can imagine together. Consider that the Illinois Arts Council had a budget of $15m in 2008. Wouldn't that make us a world class city? Instead that money was used on pricey consultants and public relations for an event that will be directed from Switzerland and the Fifth Floor.

I hope if nothing else that the Mayor and his people have learned a lesson, that openness and transparency are not signs of weakness, but strength. Secrecy is the refuge of insecurity.

 
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mark / October 3, 2009 6:58 AM

Your article is spot on correct. I am writing this after the vote. A true leader welcomes transparency and that is not the current mayor! Vote him out!

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